The Lovely Horrible Stuff

Eddie Campbell is probably best known for his collaboration with Alan Moore, the exhaustive examination of Jack the Ripper called From Hell; but for over 20 years he has been telling personal stories through a semi-autobiographical avatar called Alec. The Lovely Horrible Stuff is a story of Campbell as himself, addressing the reader in order to discuss his experiences with money.

The book is broken into two parts. The first examines Campbell’s finances as a freelance artist and self-publisher, and how those are thrown into disarray by some unfortunate dealings with his father-in-law. He depicts the stress this puts on his family (which has since presumably played a part in his divorce) with the fearlessness that has always characterized his work.

The second part of the book is a more general examination of economics through the tale of the giant stone coins from the island of Yap, which is to the north of Campbell’s adopted home of Australia. Campbell’s art style in the book differs from his previous work in that it incorporates collage and photos in addition to his usual linework. As a fan of his linework, I can’t say I that I felt it always worked for me; but his writing is as sharp as ever. That and the unusual subject matter makes The Lovely Horrible Stuff well worth reading.

Chi’s Sweet Home

I happened across the first volume of Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata at Little Island Comics in Toronto, and picked it up because a quick scan indicated that it was one of the most adorable comics I have ever seen. It is the tale of a curious kitten who gets separated from her mother and siblings one day near a park; fortunately she is found by a wayward child and taken in by his family, with the intention of finding her a permanent family since they cannot keep pets in their building. They have trouble finding an adopter, however, and eventually decide to keep the kitten (named “Chi” – Japanese for “pee” – by the child who is potty training).

The book is told entirely from Chi’s point of view, and Kanata does a great job of depicting the sorts of challenges and feelings that a kitten might have, from separation anxiety to litterbox issues and visiting the vet. It is not always as lighthearted as you might assume, so I would not recommend it for very young children (ie., preschool), but it is very true and touching, in the same vein as Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts comic strip.

Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show One

This is the first volume of a projected 2600-page opus by young cartoonist Adam Hines, set in an alternate world where animals can talk. Other than that, the world is much like ours in that we humans still raise and slaughter animals for food, and keep them as pets; as a result it is by turns heartbreaking and horrifying. The first volume introduces many characters and themes, but it primarily revolves around Pompeii, a Barbary macaque that is the leader of an animal terrorist group; and Jack Hammond, a human FBI agent who pursues Pompeii after the bombing of a California college library. Pompeii and his hench-ape spend a chunk of time hiding in the home of a wealthy family, leading to a particularly haunting passage where Pompeii reads the diary of the mother who lived there.

The ambition, complexity, and artistry of this book cannot be understated. It frequently reminded me of another great series about man’s relationship with nature; The Puma Blues by Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli. The art reminded me of the tragically aborted Alan Moore/Bill Sinkiewicz series Big Numbers, by Hines’ use of collage, graphite, ink and mixed media. He employs mathematical principles to design panel and page layouts, reflecting the natural world that he depicts. Long silent passages of the camera drifting over darkened wheat fields or forests give way to human streets and buildings rendered in line art. Like Chris Ware, Hines employs a variety of visual devices and metaphors to compartmentalize the narrative, without losing the tension that runs throughout.

In short, Adam Hines and his book are the real deal. I read most of Duncan the Wonder Dog last night, and found difficult to put down and difficult to sleep afterward. It’s not for the faint of heart; great books or art never are.

You can read Duncan the Wonder Dog online here.

Bigfoot Boy: Into the Woods

I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Bigfoot Boy: Into the Woods by J. Torres and Faith Erin Hicks recently. It’s an all-ages graphic novel about Rufus, a ten-year-old boy who spends a long weekend at his grandmother’s house in British Columbia. Bored, he follows a neighbour girl called Penny into the woods and gets a little lost; in his attempt to find his way back he finds a strange necklace with a totem carved on one side and “sasquatch” on the other. Like a Canadian Captain Marvel, he discovers that when he says the word on the necklace, he is struck by lightning and turned into a sasquatch (or Bigfoot, for American readers). He takes this pretty much in stride and soon befriends a talking flying squirrel called Sidney. When he says the magic word backwards, he returns to human form (sans clothes). Unfortunately for Rufus, there are others who want to use the power of the necklace. Sidney and Penny help him understand his new powers so that he can survive and protect the forest.

I enjoyed this book very much and will be buying a copy for my own ten-year-old boy when it is released by Kids Can Press in September. Torres is a YA comics veteran and Shuster award winning writer that I have followed since his Copybook Tales minicomics, and Faith Erin Hicks is a talented Halifax artist with comics like the charming Superhero Girl and Friends With Boys under her belt. They make a great team here; Torres’ script is fun and well-paced for the preteen audience, and Hicks’ artwork is energetic and expressive. I hope there will be more volumes to come!

In the meantime, if you happen to be in the Toronto area, Torres and Hicks will be at Fan Expo Canada and launching the book at Little Island Comics in Mirvish Village on Sunday at 4 PM. Get out there and support quality all-ages and YA comics!

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life (Colour Edition)

I am a big fan of Scott Pilgrim; my introduction to the series was to buy a copy of this book in its original incarnation from writer/artist Bryan Lee O’Malley at a book festival in Halifax. For the purposes of this review, I’m going to divide the potential reader into the following groups: 1) those who have never read the books, and 2) those who have. Whether or not you have seen the film is immaterial; the books contain a lot of additional story that is well worth reading.

So if you are in group 1, should you buy this book? Probably. I feel that the cover price is a bit steep ($25 for a colour hardcover, compared to $15 for the black and white paperback), and artwise this is the weakest of the series; but the story is still one of the smartest and sharpest things you will encounter on the shelves, and the colour by Nathan Fairbairn is very well done. The lettering has also been “remastered”, whatever that means, and the artwork generally sharpened and tweaked to show off the colour as well as possible.

And if you are in group 2? Personally, I don’t feel compelled to buy the series again in colour. Oni Press has added some nice design touches reminiscent of the film, and some “behind the scenes” material by O’Malley at the end, but I would rather save my money for O’Malley’s new book due next year (or his wife’s adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time, for that matter). Of course, your mileage may vary; I can easily imagine a hardcore SP fan replacing the paperbacks with these new hardcover editions.

The Underwater Welder

Jeff Lemire (Essex County, Sweet Tooth) recently released this original graphic novel through Top Shelf to great acclaim, and while I did enjoy it, I feel like it may be a little overpraised. Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof puts it well in his introduction: The Underwater Welder is like a lost episode of The Twilight Zone. It is the story of Jack Joseph, a diver who works on an oil rig off the coast of Nova Scotia. His very pregnant wife is frustrated that he seems to be pulling away from her when she needs him most. Jack is haunted by the loss of his father – also a diver – twenty years earlier. When Jack finds an object deep in the ocean that appears to belong to his father, he finds himself forced to choose between dwelling on the past and his future.

The Underwater Welder is certainly not a bad book. Lemire has a great, idiosyncratic art style that is its own class of Canadian folk art. As a writer, though, I wonder if he is just best suited to short stories. For all of its ambition, The Underwater Welder feels somewhat slight to me, as if it was once a story of Essex County that got promoted to a longer treatment. Lindelof’s comparison to The Twilight Zone is apt and complimentary, but it is also a bit of a curse, because not every episode of The Twilight Zone was solid gold; sometimes it felt like a bit of a formula. So, too, does The Underwater Welder.

That said, as a native of the area, I did enjoy Lemire’s vision of this small Nova Scotia town and would be happy to read more stories set there. Lemire’s tone and output as a writer reminds me of George Elliott (the Canadian author, not the Victorian pseudonym) and the American writer Sherwood Anderson; pretty good company to keep.

The Hidden

Why don’t I read more Richard Sala books? The guy is a genius, and I have liked everything I have read by him. The Hidden is an excellently paced tale with roots in a classic story, a lot of macabre touches and dark humour.

It opens with what appears to be the world ending. A bearded man hides in dark corners as bizarre humanoid creatures run amok, killing everyone they see. He manages to escape the town and suddenly wakes in a cave, his beard much longer and unable to remember much about his past. He meets a young couple whose car has broken down and offers to lead them to a rest stop that might be safe. As they travel, they meet another young couple and trade stories. When they arrive at the rest stop, it does prove to be a safe place – for a while.

Sala is, to my mind, the heir to Edward Gorey as the king of dark and creepy and wonderful comics; but Sala’s style is also more contemporary, comfortably depicting both monsters and cute college girls on the same page. He combines idiosyncratic linework and lettering with a muted colour palette to create what is a unique place in comics.

The G.N.B. Double C

The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists is a sort-of-graphic-novel from the sketchbooks of Seth, who is probably as well known these days for his book and packaging design as he is for his comics. One of his passions is the study and celebration of classic cartoonists, so much so that his sketchbooks have become a repository for semi-fictional tales of their exploits. The GNBCC takes place in an alternate world where Canada once celebrated its cartoonists as Seth would, erecting statues and supporting regional headquarters that resemble gentlemen’s clubs.

Seth’s narrator takes us on a tour through the central HQ; the only one left apart from an archive in the arctic circle. The book ruminates on the passing of time and the GNBCC’s members, digressing occasionally to describe the achievements of some and failures of others. The discussion includes Doug Wright, an actual titan of Canadian cartooning for whom our national awards are named, and who is the subject of an enormous tome that Seth also designed.

I don’t know my Canadian comics history as well as I might (though I do know some), so I cannot always be sure about the references, but it seemed that there were passages about Richard Comely, the creator of Captain Canuck who was also a little wacky about politics; and I wonder if Henry Pefferlaw is supposed to represent the late Martin Vaughn-James.

Like much of Seth’s work, The GNBCC is a smart and well-drawn, charming and aloof tale with some dark moments. He dedicates it to “honorary Canadian” Joe Matt and enshrines his other close friend Chester Brown within this fictional society. I was about to write “sadly fictional”, as if it is a shame that the GNBCC does not actually exist, but honestly, I’m not sure that it is. The GNBCC was a nice place to visit but I don’t think I want to live there.

Anya’s Ghost

Sheridan alumnus Vera Brosgol hits a home run with her debut YA graphic novel Anya’s Ghost, about a teenaged Russian immigrant who has worked hard to assimilate but still feels like an outsider. Anya discovers that things could be much worse when she falls down a hole in a field and lands next to the long-lost remains of Emily, a girl who died under sinister circumstances during World War I. Emily’s ghost haunts the skeleton, unable to stray far from it, but when Anya is rescued she accidentally sweeps one of Emily’s small finger-bones into her backpack and brings Emily with her. Not surprisingly, Emily does not want to go back, so she promises to help Anya with her problems, fetching answers for tests and finding out how to attract a certain boy. The more Emily does, however, the more Anya starts to suspect that Emily is not as helpful as she appears.

Brosgol, herself a Russian immigrant, constructs a smart and well-paced script around familiar YA themes of self-discovery and ethical choices versus wanting to fit in. Anya is a (literally) well-drawn character with family and friends that we can easily identify with. The art style is very polished, reminding me a bit of Craig Thompson and Hope Larson, but by no means derivative. And while teenaged girls are the obvious target for Anya’s Ghost, anyone who loves great comics would be well-served to check it out. My congratulations to Vera Brosgol, I can’t wait to see what she does next.

The Abyss Gazes Also

Katherine Wirick recently wrote at The Hooded Utilitarian about how we could interpret Rorschach, every fanboy’s favourite psychopath, as a victim of rape. She points to the incident where two older boys threaten to take down young Walter’s pants, supposedly so as to molest him, resulting in Walter taking out some of his considerable rage on the boys. Walter was emotionally and probably physically abused, by his mother and perhaps her clients; but not raped.

I see no reason to add rape to Rorschach’s motivation or backstory when there is no real evidence for it, and a more obvious answer is literally staring us in the face. It is in the mask and the name that Walter Kovacs chose to fight what he calls crime. The Rorschach ink blot test is a psychological device designed to reveal aspects of the patient’s personality indirectly, through their own impressions. In Watchmen, it reinforces the fact that Rorschach is our window into that world, through his journal and otherwise. He is our avatar, our abyss to gaze into. For those of us used to reading American superhero comics, he is the closest (albeit warped) thing we have to the uncompromising good guy who wants justice.

What drives Rorschach is indeed the violence and sexual issues recounted by Wirick; but I have a feeling that all of those details are in Walter’s history not to paint him as a revenge-seeking victim, but rather as a Freudian superhero. I think that one of Alan Moore’s goals was to posit Rorschach in this way against Ozymandias, who is arguably the Jungian superhero: creative and self-actualized, “making himself feel” the wrongs he perpetrates in the name of the greater good. Jungian ideas (especially synchronicity) also permeate the character of Dr. Manhattan, and Jung is quoted at the end of Manhattan’s dialogue with Laurie about her origins.

If you look at Watchmen through the lens of psychology rather than trying to bend the characters to mainstream superhero archetypes, an assortment of motivations and disorders is readily apparent: megalomania, sociopathology, parental issues, repressed memories, sexual dysfunctions and more. It is not only Rorschach who is his face; most of these people are “functional” only in costume, whatever form the costume takes. The Rorschach “birth scene” where he kills the child rapist, which Wirick views as indicative of Kovacs’ own history, is more likely the kind of catharsis-through-psychosis described by R.D. Laing, whose book Knots is also depicted in Watchmen (at one point being torn in half by a minor character, as a visual echo of Ozymandias slicing through the Gordian knot).

Watchmen itself is a Rorschach test, filled with imagery and ideas that we can choose to interpret as we wish. Does Rorschach’s journal get found and reveal Veidt’s lies? Does Dr. Manhattan create a different world to try again? Is the recurring imagery of the smiley face button evidence of some creator’s plan, or merely the kind of amazing coincidence that Dr. Manhattan admires? The way we answer reveals aspects of our personality as much as any inkblot could.