Review: Flex Mentallo by Grant Morrison

Flex Mentallo is Grant Morrison's exploration of what it means to be a comic book character. If you've read Morrison's autobiography, you will know that he believes the stories we tell have their own life, possibly in another universe, or even another dimension.

The premise of Flex Mentallo is that the eponymous superhero has become real through the pscyhic powers of a young boy named Wally Sage who can manifest superheroes from his comics.

Meanwhile, the adult Wallace Sage has decided to end it all, and is phoning in his story to the 911 operator. He's now a a pop musician, but he seems to be suffering from depression. In despair he takes a lot of drugs, who knows what, and then starts rambling.

For some reason, Flex Mentallo is like a Coen Bros movie to me: I can't seem to remember the plot. Perhaps that's because there isn't one. The story simply exists as an exploration of a set of ideas and characters.
Morrison explores inside jokes pertaining to both the comic industry, and to his own personal history and philosophy.

Wallace Sage,
"Do you believe in superheroes? Imagine it real."
"Imaging the technology... their culture impacting with ours...Dreamatrons and Boom Shoes, paraspacesuits and Omniscopes...imagine the music we could make...ultrasonics...infra-sound."

Meanwhile, Flex talks with the chief of police
"The Whole of goddamn reality's coming unglued and I'm here on the night shift."

Quitely's art is mesmerizing.  It looks like a collage of super hero stories.
I want to explore each and every thread shown on the page.
Unfortunately, the story itself is a bit talky and static.

Review: Patience by Dan Clowes

After five years in the making, Daniel Clowes' new graphic novel "Patience" is out. It's about a guy, Jack Barlow, who loses someone, tries to make it right, and then gives up. Years later he gets a chance to fix that messed-up event and commits to resolve everything or die trying. I don't want to give any spoilers, but the back cover says Patience is "a cosmic timewarp deathtrip to the primordial infinite of everlasting love."

"Patience" deals with many of the same themes as Clowes' earlier books.  It starts with two relative innocents, Jack and his wife Patience, who learn they are about to have a baby.  The scenes of them walking around town discussing their future is reminiscent of Enid and Rebecca in "Ghost World" wondering about their futures and searching for meaning in the world.  Anyone reading these pages would recognize them as classic Clowes.

Then the page turns and everything changes. In an interview with NPR, Clowes said he wanted it to be as shocking as the turn of events in Pyscho after Janet Leigh's character steals the money and hides out in Bates Motel.  'Nuff said there.

After that, both the style and story are more aggressive than any other Clowes book, but "Patience" still has his signature themes. For example, both "Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron" and "Ice Haven" center around people who are searching for someone.  In "Velvet Glove" Clay Loudermilk searches for his ex-wife after seeing her in a porn film. In "Ice Haven" a boy is kidnapped, and the story is wrapped around how this changes the town.

Even "Wilson" is recaptured in "Patience."  Wilson is described as a misanthrope who desires deep connection with people, but fails due to his abrasive personal style.  The older Jack Barlow is much like Wilson. He has no time for niceties or small talk. He either wants oblivion (through drink and drugs) or answers to his own personal mysteries and problems.  Given a chance, Barlow will go to the end of the universe and change time and space to solve his own personal problems -- which in fact is what he ends up attempting.

In "Wilson" Clowes played with changing drawing styles to underscore themes in different scenes. Sometimes it was cartoonish, sometimes sparse, other times much more true to his standard detailed line art.  "Patience" has a more consistent drawing style, but in this case Clowes pushes the content. He has fist-fights, ray guns, drug-like freak outs and space babies a la Stanley Kubrick's 2001.  Is this Clowes trying to grow, or is he simply reflecting back on the comics he used to read as a kid? Maybe "Patience" is an example of what superhero comics look like when drawn by Daniel Clowes.

Patience is an amazing story of love and destiny that both reflects Clowes' existing body of work, and also pushes his boundaries. The hardback book is nicely printed, and the weight of the volume is appropriate to the story contained in it.  Even if you were previously mixed about Daniel Clowes' graphic novels, you will find something new and wonderful in "Patience."


Review: The Zoo Box by Ariel Cohn and Aron Nels Steinke

The Zoo Box is a fun, but familiar story of some kids who accidentally open a pandora’s box of zoo animals. The world is filled with elephants, penguins, alligators and especially birds dressed as security guards.  The kids travel amongst these animals until they discover a chilling secret.  The illustrations are filled with details that younger kids will enjoy searching for and pointing out.  Overall, the book has quite a bit of energy to it.

Nominating The Zoo Box for the Oregon Book Awards in the Graphic Literature category, however, seems to be a mistake.  Graphic Literature may be the more cultured version of the now-common category Graphic Novels, but I still prefer calling them comic books.  The Zoo Box does not fit with my idea the comic book format.

I can't put my finger on the dividing line, but one has to ask what are the attributes that define a graphic novel?  As Scott McCloud so eloquently put it, the medium must have panels that are juxtaposed.  The spaces between the panels allow the reader to fill in the action.  Comics are not required to have word balloons. Some, such as Jim Woodring's Frank can be entirely mute, or others like Hal Foster's Prince Valiant fill in the story with text within the panel.  But if the characters speak in balloons, this pushes into comic book territory.  And the pages are generally arranged portrait, although this too is not a requirement.    

If there was some text accompanying the pictures, it would be a slam-dunk children's book. Since the characters speak in word balloons, there is a valid argument for putting The Zoo Box in the Graphic Literature category.

On the other hand, the layout looks like most children’s books. The hardbound, landscape format would be recognizable to most kids who browse school library shelves.  And the "Graphic Literature" category should promise more depth than a children's book. The Zoo Box may be graphic, but it is a stretch to call it literature. The only tie to comics is that the publisher, First Second Books, publishes mostly graphic novels.  My opinion is that it should have been nominated in the Children’s Books category.

I recently read the OBA judge's notes about this book. Gabriel Bell writes (my emphasis):
"This is a delightful, perfect children’s book. Two children misbehave and nearly unleash all kinds of unspeakable havoc on the world and themselves, but just barely manage to avert it. Not only that (spoiler alert:) they totally get away with it, which means they get to go to the zoo the next day and are never punished. Is this even allowed in children’s books? The artwork is masterful in its simplicity. The story is fun and playful, and likely to be a great delight to comics fans of a certain age."
I emphasize that she calls it a children's book, and it should have been judged within that category.

Bottom line: An enjoyable kids book, possibly mis-categorized as graphic literature.

This is the first book by Ariel Cohn and Aron Nels Steinke.


Darth Vader Was Wrong!

In June, 1979, Starlog (tagline: “The Magazine of the Future”) ran an interview with Dave Prowse, the massive British actor who played Darth Vader in Star Wars IV (“A New Hope”).  This interview was done before much production had begun on Star Wars V, “The Empire Strikes Back.”  During the interview, one of Prowse’s answers seems particularly na├»ve, especially in retrospect. 
Starlog: Have they signed you up for any of the future Star Wars sequels? 
Prowse: They’ve offered me Star Wars II and III. As you probably know, Star Wars I, II, and III are actually the fourth, fifth and sixth in the Empire’s chronology. And then they’re going back to do the first three. I’ll do the fifth and sixth, but I probably miss the first because they’ll be going back in Empire history. Then I’ll likely do the second and third. So I could be Star Warsing for the next…10 years?
In fact, Prowse played Darth Vader in the next three movies, but due to production conflicts on both V and VI, the first three movies took nearly 7 years to complete. After that, Lucas backed off Star Wars, and Prowse was not in any of the prequels.  It's also notable that he thought the next five movies could be produced so quickly. To compare, the James Bond films of the 60's were released almost on a yearly basis.

Although Prowse can be seen in many movies, such as A Clockwork Orange, and as the monster in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, his face never appeared in the Star Wars movies.

According to IMDB, when Sebastian Shaw was revealed in Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983) as the "man behind Darth Vader's mask", Darth Vader became the first recurring role in a movie series to be played by three actors at the same time: body by Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones and face by Sebastian Shaw.

Here's the full interview from Starlog, 1979.


Star Wars Cereal : Breakfast Review

 Normally this blog reviews comics and graphic novels, but this morning is a chance to check out something else: the Star Wars special edition breakfast cereal.

I picked up a box of this at my local Fred Meyer. I first noticed the seriously bad-ass Yoda in the cereal aisle. Then my eyes dropped to the sale sticker: $2.50, and I had to try a box.

From the box label, I imagined the cereal was a Star Wars-version of Lucky Charms, except with Forcefully tasty Lightsabers and marshmallow-y good R2-D2s.  I was unperturbed by the banner that promised "First Ingredient Whole Grain."  Marshmallows, right? So that was a plus.

Next, I scanned for the words "Free Prize Inside!" but I was sorely disappointed. Apparently the two big Gs (General Mills and George Lucas) don't give anything away for free any more.  I also noticed the "Disney" signature in the upper right of the box.  Could this be the pop-culture singularity? Only if it also had Spider-man....

I checked out, ran home with my box, and tore it open.  The cereal itself was surprising. It was more like a non-sugary version of Captain Crunch.  In fact, it reminded me most of a health-food cereal: Barbara's Puffins, except with less crunch.  The shapes are apparently a TIE fighter, a rounded AT-AT, and what I hope is the outline of an X-Wing fighter.
Serving Suggestion

While I munched my breakfast (serving suggestion) I did the Star Wars quiz on the back of the box. I scored 14 out of 15, achieving the rank of Jedi Master.

I had one bowl, and it satisfied me nearly as long as the knock-off Cheerios that I normally have for brekkers.

Bottom line: Marshmallows = excellent. Cereal wasn't bad.  Fun quiz on the back. Bad-ass Yoda a plus.  I might buy the Darth Vader box next time.


2009: The Year in Comics

What did I read in 2009?

Read "The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga". This book is fantastic.

Got "Golden Age Marvel Comics Omnibus Vol. 1" for my birthday. Beautiful! First issues Marvel Comics from Timely. Has the origin of the Human Torch, Namor and other early Timely Comics before they became Marvel Comics.

Read "Supermen!: The First Wave of Comic-Book Heroes 1939-1941". Before superheroes were deconstructed, there were these guys: the Flame, Rex Dexter of Mars, The Comet, and Fletcher Hank's inimitable Stardust.

Speaking of Fletcher Hanks, also read "You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation!". Hanks has an awkward style that grows on you. The stories are fantastic, almost surreal.

Elsewhere on my blog I have a review of "The Beats: A Graphic History."

Also a review of the graphic novel Asterios Polyp

If you have never read The Incal Noir by Mobeius and Alexandro Jodorowsky, I urge you to get it. This odd sci-fi epic may remind you of "The Fifth Element," except for a couple things: the comic came first, the conclusion is so much more satisfying, and there's no Bruce Willis or Christ Tucker. Pure genius!

Go ahead, read "A History Of Violence". This is the book that the movie is based on. Cripes it's gripping! Art is sketchy, but effective. Totally engrossing.

Fleep is described as "a complex and subtle yarn about a young man trapped in a phone booth." It's a short comic of mystery, self-discovery and redemption. Drawn by Jason Shiga, author of The Bookhunter. Shiga consistently tries to take storytelling in comics to the next level, and this work doesn't disappoint.

Elsewhere I also reviewed "Inifinite Typewriters" and "Bayou"

The comic book novels "Soon I Will be Invincible" explores superheroes and villains in a "realistic" world. Funny!
The collection of Wednesday comics. It was interesting to see other artists try the classic DC superheroes. Nice, also, to see something in the format of the Sunday Comics, except worth the newsprint space. I liked the Metamorpho facts section.

I also read:


Review: Robert Moses - The Master Builder of New York City by Christin and Balez

I recently read Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City written by Pierre Christin with art by Olivier Balez.

The story is how Moses, the son of a Jewish-German family of the Haute-Bourgeoisie (money) who was always an outcast in the WASP Ivy-league schools, struggled to make something that mattered. He meets Mrs. Belle Moskowitz, a social activist, who introduces him to Alfred E Smith, governor of New York state.  Moses brings his zeal for building the future to the administration, and learns from Moskowitz how to lobby and politic to get the projects accomplished.

Through his vision, he builds public beaches, parks, swimming pools and airports for New York City, and the surrounding areas.  Part of his vision, however, includes demolishing the tenements of NYC and replacing them with modern apartment housing. He also plans wide highways and freeways to connect all these modern projects. This vision for growth, replacing the old with a newer better version sets up a conflict that is ultimately his downfall.

The book does an excellent job of setting the tone and history for the different eras. Moses's career ran from the 30s to the 60s, and the art is consistent, but clearly represents the styles of each time.  During his lifetime Moses met and worked with many famous men. His public works took place during five mayors of New York, six state governors, and seven presidents, all represented in the book. There's even an interesting scene with Guy Lombardo, apparently a close friend of Moses.

The one caveat is there's not enough dialogue. I'd like to see more scenes set at a personal level. Still, this may have been a choice by Christin, since Moses seemed to work on a grand scale.

The book's final section casts an interesting light on Moses' accomplishments.  His plans to bulldoze SoHo and Washington Square and replace it with a Lower Manhattan Expressway seems shocking in hindsight, but city administrators found it acceptable. It was only due to grassroots opposition, spearheaded by activist Jane Jacobs, that the project was cancelled.  Moses, the original activist visionary, was blocked by a new era's vision for livable cities.

Bottom line: great art, interesting and well-structure biography on the man known as the "master builder" of mid-20th century New York City and surroundings.


A surprise in the letters from Batman #235

Whenever I'm reading old comics I check the Letters to the Editor to see if there's someone I'd recognize. Surprise, in Batman #235 (1972) there are two future comics creators: Bob Rozakis (misspelled in the comic) started working for DC in 1975 as the Answer Man, and Dave Sims began Cerebus in 1977.