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50 (well, 52) Excellent Comics from 2007  •  Page 4

 

→ 20 ←

The Ganzfeld 5: Japanada
Dan Nadel, editor
Gingko Press
240 pages, $29.95
ISBN: 9781584232513

 

From the book, a psychedelic illustration by (and ©2007) Keiichi Tanaami.

 

Easily the most entertainingly baffling bit of eyecandy to cross my path in the last year. At its best, The Ganzfeld was sort of a forerunner to Kramers Ergot in spirit — though not exactly in form — insofar as it attempted to mix comics, art, design and pop-art abstraction into a fairly seamless whole. Past issues also included a fair amount of prose, as well, though the latter is all but absent this time out.

This issue divides right down the middle, with the first half featuring avant-garde cartooning and illustration from Japan, and the second half offering the same from Canada. The first half strikes me as stronger insofar as it contains work by artists that I've wanted to explore further for quite some time — Saseo Ono, Keiichi Tanaami, King Terry, Yuichi Yokoyama — but its actually quite surprising how smoothly the Japanese side flows into the Canadian side. Of the former, the King Terry stuff was especially great: bizarro artwork by a happy freak obsesed with sex in seemingly every permutation that he could imagine. The highlights in the latter include the CB-radio cards contributed by Jeff Halladay and Mark Connery's oddly sweet Rudy strips. All that said, this sort of collection is almost guaranteed to leave readers [A] convinced that it's one-third filler, and [B] disagreeing violently as to which parts were the filler. That's a feature and not a bug for me, but your mileage may etc.

 

→ 19 ←

The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories
Nicholas Gurewitch
Dark Horse Books
98 pages, $14.95
ISBN: 9781593078447

 

The joke will hit you in three... two... one... Strip from The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories, ©2007 Nicholas Gurewitch.

 

It occurs to me that if there were no such thing as Chris Onstad, then Nicholas Gurewitch would be the default choice for Funniest Strip Cartoonist on Earth. Seriously, does anyone else even come close? The twisted cartoon genius behind The Perry Bible Fellowship (of which this book serves as the first collection), Gurewitch comes with two talents that when blended turn into the Ultimate Comic-Strip Karate Chop of Doom. First, he's a consummately skilled cartoonist. His sense of color, of composition, of pacing, of framing — there doesn't seem to be a single aspect of the medium that he doesn't have down on a fairly primal level. Furthermore, while his default style is both deceptively simple and infinitely adaptable to just about any drawing problem, he's also one of the best drawing mimics to come along since Paul Mavrides; this book has him cold owning the styles of other cartoonists from R. Crumb to Edward Gorey to Peter Max to Aubrey Beardsley to a dozen cartoonists whose style I've seen in advertising and magazines all my life, but whose names I've never learned. The guy can basically do anything. (Okay, the Bil Keane was a bit off, but not by much.)

The other half of his killer talent is the ability to come at a joke from an oblique angle, giving you just enough information to understand what's going on and not one iota more. This gives him the ability to hit that magic sweet spot: The joke that it takes you a second or two to get, after which it becomes that much funnier. I promised myself that I wouldn't try to describe a strip in this review, so I refer you insted to the above cartoon as an example. He does this all the time.

Hence, Nicholas Gurewitch is the Second-Funniest Strip Cartoonist on Earth.

 

→ 18 ←

Yotsuba&! Vols. 4-5
Kiyohiko Azuma
ADV Manga
200-216 pages, $9.99 each
Vol. 4 ISBN: 9781413903454
Vol. 5 ISBN: 9781413903492

 

Read excerpt from right to left. She may be tired after a day at the beach, but Yotsuba can still play! Sequence from Yotsuba&! Vol. 5, ©2006 Kiyohiko Azuma/Yotuba Sutazio.

 

When it comes to entertainment, I'm allergic to cute. I'm doubly allergic to cute kids. Cute kids in a gentle family comedy? Somebody call a doctor — I've been poisoned.

Leave it to the Japanese to create two such comedies that would sneak right past my defenses and leave me waiting anxiously for more. I reviewed one of them over a year ago, Barasui's Strawberry Marshmallow, but even that series didn't prepare me for the all-out cute assault that is Kiyohiko Azuma's hilariously addictive little tour of the world through the eyes of a five-year-old girl named Yotsuba. Episodic, leisurely paced and loaded with character-based comedy that increases its attack value as you get further into the world it depicts, this series can turn the soul of the bitterest cynic into a big, fluffy pile of smiley-faced mush. Whether this is a promise or a warning is really up to you.

Here's the key to how it all works: Yotsuba is naïve, precocious and full of seemingly boundless enthusiasm, fascinated by surroundings that she's effectively seeing for the first time, and the people around her... aren't. This works in two ways. On the one hand, her father and the family next door are both watchful guardians and co-conspirators, forever keeping lookout on her behalf, marveling at her antics and often doing their best to join in on the fun at her level — or at least as close to her level as they can get. On the other hand, the temptation to mess with Yotsuba by feeding her false information and watching her reaction is sometimes too much to resist: After all, if she asks you if you've been to the moon, why not say yes? That cardboard robot costume you're wearing? You're actually a robot, right Yotsuba? Between these two plot devices, Azuma takes familiar conceits and invites his reader to see them anew through the eyes of a child. It's marvelous stuff.

 

→ 17 (tie) ←

Garage Band
Gipi
First Second
128 pages, $16.95
ISBN: 1596432063

Notes For a War Story
Gipi
First Second
128 pages, $16.95
ISBN: 9781596432611

 

The only way you could convince yourself that such a place might ever impress a girl is with a guitar in your hand. Sequence from Garage Band, ©2005 Gipi, English translation ©2007 First Second.

 

This year saw two books from the Italian artist Gipi, both concerned with the moment where young men's amorphous hopes and dreams for the future threaten to sharpen into reality. In each case, something comes along and gives them direction, and the most interesting thing about comparing these two books is in seeing how different that direction can be, depending upon the agent of change.

In Garage Band, the agent is a garage, some old instruments and the promise of rock 'n' roll. Giuliano's dad is letting him and his bandmates use the garage, and it's the first chance they've really had to give free rein to their musical ambitions. The band is a ragtag bunch; there's Alex, the idiot drummer with an inchoate fascination for Nazi imagery; there's Stefano, the neighborhood troublemaker, whose endless cynicism makes him both perfect for the role of egotistical lead singer and an endless source of strife and argument; there's Alberto, whose common-sense attitude helps hold the group together; and there's Giuliano himself, who just wants to have a dream and share it with his girlfriend.

Gipi's art is perfectly suited to presenting such an atmosphere, sketchy and expressive, with watercolors providing just enough color to evoke a sense of place but not so rich as to kill the sense of a weather-beaten small-town dream. The characters are lanky and jagged, like Jamie Hewlett's Gorrilaz re-interpreted by José Muñoz — personable enough that a scene on the beach can convey a sense of underlying sensualism, despite the fact that nobody here would ever be mistaken for pretty.

There's a plot to this story — something about stolen equipment — but it almost feels beside the point. Garage Band is more about the evocation of atmosphere than about where the band is going. Gipi has a firm sense of composition and pacing, and he uses it to depict the hazy sense of forever by which post-adolescents still measure time, too inexperienced to see the extent to which life is passing them by, or perhaps just not really giving a shit to begin with. You never get the impression that Giuliano and his bandmates are ever really going anywhere, but again, that's not the point. A garage is a place where you nurture dreams that might happen someday. In the meantime, there's rehearsal, and getting drunk on possibilities.

 

In the right circumstances, a gun can offer as many dreams as can a guitar. Panel from Notes For a War Story, ©2004 Gipi.

 

Notes For a War Story is Garage Band's mirror image, dull and monochrome where the latter was bright and airy. Again, we follow a young man named Giuliano and his two friends, dullwitted Christian and the restless Little Killer, in search of the future — but this time, they're not rocking out in a garage. This time, they're wandering aimlessly across the open plains of a nation wracked by civil war. Soon they make their way to a small town where bombs and gunfire haven't scared the locals away yet, and enter a bar where they meet their own agent of change: a thuggish racketeer named Felix. Felix gives them a list containing the names of people who owe money, a job collecting it — and he gives Little Killer a gun.

You might think that you can guess what happens next — and you might well be right — but what happens to the boys isn't quite as important as what it does to their souls. For each of the boys, the invitation to a life of crime offers a different form of validation. To Christian, it's an end to poverty and uncertainty. To Giuliano, it's the chance to prove himself as something other than a middle-class poseur slumming for kicks. And to Little Killer, both the job and the gun are his ticket to manhood. If you're expecting Notes For a War Story to be a meditation on war, think again; it's really an examination of lawlessness, and how the invitation to savagery can warp one's soul. While war looms large in the background, what happens to our three protagonists seem designed to demonstrate that one doesn't need organized conflict to fall into the darkness. One only needs the absence of light.

 

→ 16 ←

Aya
Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie
Drawn & Quarterly
112 pages, $19.95
ISBN: 9781894937900

 

The titular heroine, too smart to stay in the limelight for long, and her two closest friends, who aren't. Sequence from Aya, ©2007 Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie.

 

From my review of the book back in March:

Marguerite Abouet's fictionalized account of 1970s village life in Africa's Ivory Coast takes two themes — sex and wealth — and weaves them into a rich and inviting soap opera. At its most basic level, Aya is a fairly straightforward account of young adults pairing off and exploring romance: some making life-altering mistakes along the way; others hanging back and watching others make their mistakes. Among the latter is the nominal lead character, Aya herself, practically sidelined by her relative lack of interest in either sex or easy prosperity. Aya avoids men because she sees how much the mating dance has shaped the lives of her friends; she studies diligently in hopes of becoming a doctor, so that she might be able to fashion a better life with her own two hands. These are both wise and worthy life choices for a teenager, but they also render her a supporting character, the self-appointed Greek Chorus observing life as it swirls around her. She'll undoubtedly join the chaos once she's ready, but for the moment, she's content to watch those around her provide object lessons in what not to do.

[...] Marguerite Abouet weaves her tale with a rich sense of character and a keen eye for detail, the two elements that invariably separate good melodrama from mere soap opera. She doesn't call attention to the specifics of life in the Irovy Coast; rather, she wraps her characters in subtle detail and lets them fulfill their roles at a natural pace, allowing incidental business to keep the eye busy while the story unfolds. The way women dress, the way men chase after them — these are presented as well-worn paths, and Abouet's characters walk along them and go about their business without pausing to notice such surroundings. A lesser artist would have stopped at every point along the way, noting the details and revelling in the chance to show his or her readers Life On Another Continent, but this strategy would only make the surroundings seem exotic and artifical, pushing the audience away and blunting a sense of indentification. That's not what happens here.

Clément Oubrerie adds life and flavor to Abouet's tale, rendering her detailed world in a warm, cartoony line that completes the illusion of a lived-in world without smothering it in excess detail. His sense of color is immaculate, shifting from warm tones to cool according to how Abouet wants the reader to approach the scene. Evening scenes may be bathed in dark reds or deep blues and purples, depending upon the required mood. It's as masterful a performance as the storytelling of its author, and the seamless way that art and writing blend together successfully paints a warm, vibrant tale of small-town life and the people who live it.

 

→ 15 ←

Nana Vols. 6-8
Ai Yazawa
Viz Media
200 pages, $8.99 each
Vol. 6 ISBN: 9781421510200
Vol. 7 ISBN: 9781421510217
Vol. 8 ISBN: 9781421515397

 

Read excerpt from right to left. Ai Yazawa flicks a finger, and the first in a very long line of dominoes topples. Page from Nana Vol. 8, ©1999 Yazawa Manga Seisakusho.

 

In my contribution to the Journal's 2005 year in review, I made a fairly grievous error: I stated that the first five volumes of Ai Yazawa's deliciously trashy rock-n-roll soap opera, Nana, were essentially all prologue. Actually, the first eight volumes are prologue, patiently setting up a dizzying array of characters and situations in such a way as to allow a single event to completely upend the premise and turn a leisurely romantic drama into a high-octane struggle for love and fame. This is what I get for reading ahead in scanlations labeled by chapter rather than by volume.

The just-released eighth volume of Nana features that single event, and it works just as well as I remembered from the first time around. Yazawa's deft touch in creating fascinating, flawed people whose motivations frequently cross with one another to ruinous effect has been years in development, and with these three most recent volumes we see her awesome storytelling prowess in full flower. This is where she gets down to business, and her business is breaking your heart. The next volume or two in this, the single best comics soap opera currently in production, will make for quite a roller coaster.

 

→ 14 ←

The Salon
Nick Bertozzi
St. Martin's Griffin
192 pages, $19.95
ISBN: 9780312354855

 

At least one girl has probably called Pablo Picasso an asshole. Panel from The Salon, ©2007 Nick Bertozzi.

 

From my review of the book back in April:

Someone is killing the artists of Paris and their hangers-on. Someone blue; a woman who looks suspiciously like she'd just stepped out of one of Paul Gauguin's paintings. Alarmed by this turn of events, expatriate writer Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo assemble their circle of cutting-edge artist friends — Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Guillaume Apollonaire, Erik Satie and, along the way, an heiress named Alice B. Toklas — to discover what sits at the heart of the murder spree. As things progress, a great deal of absinthe will be imbibed, and this will turn out to be essential to the plot.

While it shares some surface similarities to another comics reimagining of Bohemian artistry, Jason's The Left Bank Gang, Nick Bertozzi's The Salon is very much its own unique story, and possesses far more depth and complexity than its published predecessor while still retaining the feel of a genre romp through the streets of Paris. Above and beyond all else, this is an entertaining book; the only pretense is in the motivations of the artists who inhabit it, and while there's more than enough cleverness to go around in The Salon's pages, it never gets in the way of a good read. If I were half as much a master of composition as Bertozzi, this sentence would probably use the word "rollicking" in one fashion or another.

[...] There's a running gag through parts of The Salon concerning the differences and similarities between comic strips and avant-garde art, and while it highlights the self-conscious thought that has gone into this story's creation, it also in a way spotlights Bertozzi's clever use of drawing style to add grace notes to the story. The careful use of color is extraordinary, giving each scene a mood and feel as carefully composed as a painting. His brush-drawn figures are realistic enough to add grounding to the often surreal elements depicted in the story, yet can take off into flights of fancy and abstraction without destroying the reader's suspension of disbelief. The ability to make visual nods to Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin and Henri Rousseau in the same story through cartooning — indeed, just to refer to multiple periods in Picasso's artistic development alone — without it seeming forced or artificial does not come easily; to do so in the midst of a fantasy-tinged murder mystery that hinges upon the creator's ability to convincingly depict both the Parisian artistic scene between World Wars and the work that it produced, without requiring the reader to possess a bachelor's degree in art history, is a balancing act worthy of a talented and accomplished cartoonist.

Bertozzi's ability to make all the elements blend together is such seamless fashion is remarkable. The results are entertaining and clever, and if it isn't quite the high art to which artists like Braque and Satie aspired, it's certainly as satisfying an endeavor as any comic strip that Pablo Picasso ever read.

 

→ 13 ←

Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms
Fumiyo Kuono
Last Gasp/jaPress
104 pages, $9.99
ISBN: 9780867196658

 

Read excerpt from right to left. The pain and tragedy remain under the surface; the survivors carry them in their flesh. Sequence from Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, ©2003 Fumiyo Kuono.

 

From my review of the book back in March:

The award-winning Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms is a meditation on the lingering after-effects of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, and the terrible burdens this event placed upon the survivors. One would think that a book dealing with such a topic would carry the heavy gravitas found in other, similarly themed books, such as Maus or Barefoot Gen, but you'd be mistaken. Creator Fumiyo Kuono, who grew up in Hiroshima decades after the bombing, graces this book's pages with a light, ephemeral touch that lulls the reader into the sort of reverie generated by episodic slice-of-life tales such as — well, such as the two short stories found here. It's a deceptively easygoing volume...

...which, of course, makes the sucker punches land that much harder.

It's said sucker punches that makes it difficult to talk much about Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms's actual contents. The more I say, the more I give the game away, and that's a real disservice to readers who have yet to experience Kuono's work. Since I don't want to ruin it for you, allow me to instead note that the naturalism and attention to character on display in this book are Kuono's greatest assets, allowing her to take a large and incomprehensible tragedy and break it down to reader's-eye level, providing glimpses of its effects on everyday people years after the fact, and leaving it to the reader to imagine the rest.

 

→ 12 ←

Shortcomings
Adrian Tomine
Drawn & Quarterly
104 pages, $19.95
ISBN: 9781897299166

 

Yeah, this conversation's going to go real well. Sequence from Shortcomings, ©2007 Adrian Tomine.

 

Ben Tanaka, the protagonist in Adrian Tomine's first full-fledged graphic novel, is a self-absorbed twentysomething whose preconceptions keep fucking with his ability to connect with people. His best friend is Alice, a mildly snotty lesbian whose inability to stay with one girl for any serious length of time is starting to make her worry. Finally, there's his girlfriend Miko, whose ethnic identity plays a significant part in her social life and interests.

All three are of Asian ancestry. Ben himself is Japanese-American, and while he cultivates a careful air of not giving a fuck about ethnic identity, it isn't entirely true: Rather, he cares when it's in his interest to do so, but otherwise uses his nonchalance as a badge of superiority over those around him. His attraction to white women is where race fucks with his head the most, if only insofar as he (or more accurately his girlfriend) thinks it says something unpleasant about how he views the world. It doesn't, necessarily, but his inability to give other people the same leeway — for example, the women around him dating non-Asians — most certainly does. It goes without saying that in the course of this volume, Ben's going to have a run-in with reality.

That all the bickering over sex and race is fascinating in its own right, and that Tomine manages to turn it into a satisfying and well told tale without leaving the reader feeling lectured or given a handful of life-lesson clichés, is a testament to the artist's well-honed storytelling craft. From the beginning, Adrian Tomine has worked to better himself at building solid, modern tales where the narrative voice and cartooning trickery are as absent from the frame as possible — "cinematic" is the wrong term for how Tomine designs his sequences, but there isn't a good comics equivalent for the specific form of understated visual naturalism that I'm trying to describe. In any case, he's achieved his artistic goals with a grace and depth that will likely surprise even those who've closely followed his work. Shortcomings is the artist's most ambitious and mature work yet.

 

→ 11 ←

The Times of Botchan Vol. 3
Jiro Taniguchi and Natsuo Sekikawa
Fanfare/Ponent Mon
160 pages, $19.99
ISBN: 9788496427129

Towards the end of the third volume of The Times of Botchan, Rintaro "Ogai" Mori describes an incident that took place in the 20th year of the Meiji period (1887 or thereabouts). During the course of a dinner in Berlin, where Mori was stationed as a medical student, a geologist named Edmund Nauman stood and began to discuss Japan. He explained that the island nation, only recently exposed to the West and working furiously to modernize, would never be the equal to a Christian nation, given that "it's like trying to build a house on water." He concluded by comparing Japan to a monkey attempting to imitate a human being, to the applause of his overwhelmingly Caucasian audience.

At this point, Mori stood up:

 

Read excerpt from right to left. Sequence from The Times of Botchan Vol. 3; ©1987 Jiro Taniguchi and Natsuo Sekikawa, English language translation ©2007 Ponent Mon.

 

Mori then challenged Nauman to a duel. There was a tense moment of silence, as it became clear that he was serious — that he considered the tarnish to his nation's honor great enough that he was demanding the oppotunity to either kill the geologist or die trying.

"I see," Nauman replied. "For today, I will apologize."

The literary importance of cartoonist Jiro Taniguchi and co-writer Natsuo Sekikawa's ten-volume epic to the graphic-novel canon grows more apparent with each volume. In the first volume, we saw Japan's intelligensia wrestle with cultural identity in an age when its self-importance had been challenged by the knowledge of just how small was their nation in the larger scheme of things. The big questions flew fast and furious, but none was bigger than "How much of ourselves and our heritage must we abandon in order to catch up with the West?" Through out the course of these three books and counting, that question has taken on more and more urgency, as Taniguchi and Sekikawa broaden their focus further and further outward, bouncing back and forth in history and expanding their cast from the coterie surrounding the writer Soseki Natsume (author of the revered novel Botchan, from which this series derives its name) to include many of the most prominent cultural and political figures of the era.

It's not an artistic strategy without peril, mind you. That large a cast of characters, covering that wide an expanse of time, can tax the patience of even the most forgiving of readers past the point of no return. Time and again, the introduction of a new personage is accompanied by the narrator, explaining not only who that person was at the time but what he or she would go on to do and why this was important to the history being portrayed. Further, a number of stories are told in flashback, and it takes some effort to keep up with what is happening when to whom. The glacial release of new volumes in the series doesn't exactly help. Allow me now to confess that before reading the second and third volumes of The Times of Botchan, I went back and re-read what had come before, knowing that it was the only way I'd be able to keep up with the latest book to fall into my hands.

All that said, these are books well worth the time and energy required to master them. Taniguchi's skills as an artist and storyteller are obvious, of course, but beyond mere craft and showmanship, there's an absorbing urgency to the grand historical sweep depicted in the pages that he and Sekikawa create — this series paints small moments and then connects them to rivers of history that would lead Japan to become an international superpower and ignite one of the bloodiest conflicts in human existence, at the conclusion of which the nation would again reinvent itself and emerge as a leader and innovator on the world stage. Only three volumes in, one can already see the beginning of this path, among the novelists, journalists, politicians, soldiers and revolutionaries taking their turns at the footlights of one of the grandest operas performed on the comics page. The Times of Botchan is not the easiest of reading experiences, but it's indisputably a rewarding one.

 

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