Review: Dear Creature by Jonathan Case

“Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak; 
Lay open to my earthy-gross conceit, 
Smother'd in errors, feeble, shallow, weak, 
The folded meaning of your words'  deceit.”
                       - Wm Shakespeare "Comedy of Errors"

Shakespeare's dialog appears in a scene in The Comedy of Errors where a stranger in town meets a woman who mistakes him for someone else, and he becomes enchanted by her beauty.  In Jonathan Case's graphic novel "Dear Creature" the stranger is an ocean-dwelling mutant monster and the woman is an agoraphobic spinster who lives with her sister in a dry-docked boat in a California seaside town circa 1960.

Using a quote from Shakespeare is appropriate, since the sea monster, Grue, has a penchant for the Bard and speaks mostly in iambic pentameter.  Giulietta attracts his attention by throwing pages of Shakespeare's plays packed into soda pop bottles into the ocean in a twist on the message in a bottle.  Unfortunately for these sea-crossed lovers, more than just family stands between their happiness.  Like many movie monsters, Grue has a hunger for human flesh, and it gets worse when pheromones are in the air.

Both the art and the story are solid. Grue's dialogue in iambic pentameter seems appropriate for this monster. In counterpoint, Grue's chorus of crabs talk more like Damon Runyon. The family, Giulietta, Zola, Joe and Roberto, act as if they've lived together for years on the boat. Characters that pop in for a page or two have distinctive dialog. Even the slightly wooden policeman Craw has a depth that we understand. He wants to marry Zola, but society of the time shuns woman who have been left behind by men.

Case explores a plethora of early 1960s references. Characters mention Beach Blanket Bingo and go to the drive-in. Of course there are allusions to atomic bomb tests, and mutant monsters as seen in the movies.  Giulietta and Zola's backstory explains that they were orphans in Italy at the end of World War II, and were whisked away to California by a rich suitor whose family made their money in soda pop.

The black and white drawings work in many ways. They remind me of the black and white Universal monster movies.  The shadows also carry enough weight to bring the story to life. Sometimes it's so dark, the panels seem be white on a black background -- with the image in relief like a woodcut.

Case has some unique comic skills. An iconic male/female/harpoon symbol always shows up when men and women get together.  This pheromone harpoon is often Grue's undoing, symbolically stabbing him in the brain and urging him into a blood lust.  At these times Grue is truly a monster, and the icon is a neat way to bring attention to this violence.

During a  panel called "Composing Comics" at Stumptown Comics Fest 2013, Case talked about his craft.  "Comics should be easier to read than not read."  He felt the art should facilitate the story. Comparing repetitive panels versus clarity, he feels that repetition works for comedy. The third beat comes around and you have a surprise. Whereas action scenes should have a clarity -- a clear focal point improves and increases dynamics.  He also mentioned he's a big fan of leaving areas of negative space. He compared the composition styles of Alex Toth with Wally Wood, referring to the latter's "22 Panels that always work"

"Dear Creature" is a lot of fun. The monster's face is stretchable and humorous. The puns, especially from the crabs are groan-able. And Case seems to especially enjoy the macabre humor that arises from the crabs wanting to feast on the remains of the teenagers killed by Grue, and Grue's unwillingness to face the facts.  As a reader, I felt invested in the fate of all the characters.  I wasn't disappointed by the conclusion.

"Dear Creature" is Case's debut graphic novel. He has also worked on the "Green River Killer" and done a stint as artist on the recent Batman '66 from DC. His website is www.jonathancase.net.


"Anya's Ghost" by Vera Brosgol

In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare uses a ghost to dramatize the young prince's internal struggle.  The ghost of Hamlet’s father claims he was killed by Claudius, and urges Hamlet to take revenge. As the story unwinds, however, we find the ghost is unreliable and it seems to others that Hamlet is acting irrationally. In “Anya’s Ghost,” Vera Brosgol uses a ghost in a similar way, as a friend, mentor and a danger for young Anya as she tries to fit in at high school.

Anya's troubles start at home. Her family emigrated from Russia to the US when she was five, and she has worked hard to lose her accent and look like an American girl. Unfortunately, her mother feeds her heavy Russian foods, makes her go to church, and encourages a friendship with Dima, a nerdy Russian boy who goes to the same school.  Anya has one friend, Siobhan, but their friendship is based more on cutting class and shared cigarettes than on shared interests.  After they have a disagreement Anya storms off to smoke in the woods. Unfortunately, she falls down a well and discovers not only a skeleton, but Emily, the ghost of the bones.  Although at first Anya is petrified, but after she escapes from the well she and Emily strike up an uneasy friendship.

The theme of ghosts, whether literal or symbolic, weaves nicely through this book. At first the ghosts of the old country, embodied by Dima and Anya's mother, seem to be holding Anya back, but then she realizes she appreciates and loves them.  Brosgol was born in Moscow, and it seems she has put some of her own experiences into the story.

"Anya's Ghost" also explores what it means to be a teen, both 100 years ago and today.  It asks whether there is a schedule for falling in love, getting married, and taking on responsibilities.  Emily's ghostly origin provides a mirror for Anya to reflect on her own feelings and path.

Best of all, this is a ghost story, and at times it becomes genuinely scary.  Much more effective than a shocking surprise in a movie, Brosgol provides some psychological terror, which is effective no matter what age, young or adult.  The result is truly haunting.

I saw Brosgol talk about her book several years ago in Portland.  She says that inking is her favorite part, and it's evident by her clean, dark, lines.  (You can see a presentation of her process here.)  She spent three years working on "Anya's Ghost" and the beautiful black and white with shades of lavender result is worth it.

According to her talk, she likes to focus on the expressions. She has a mirror at work, and even if she's not looking in the mirror she's making the face of the character she's drawing. Like many artists, her day job takes priority over personal projects, and drawing at work uses the same part of her brain. Her real passion is telling her own stories. The problem us just that she's chosen an inefficient method of telling stories.  At the time she was working on a revised version of a web comic she did in high school called "Return to Sender."

Brosgol is also a storyboard artist at LAIKA, where she worked on the films Coraline and ParaNorman. Her twitter handle is @VeraBee and her website is verabee.com.  You can also check out her minicomic, "raised by wolves," at verabee.com/wolf/


Rose City Comic-con 2014

Here are some of my sketchnotes from Rose City Comic Con, 2014.

Gigi Edgley, who played Chiana on Farscape, as well as appearing in The Lost World, Beastmaster and Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge, was very charming.

Will Wheaton is known for playing Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation as well as appearing on Big Bang, and producing and directing other TV shows and podcasts. He's also known for Wheaton's Law: "don't be a dick." The moderator led him into discussions of mental health, step-children, pets and board games.

Greg Rucka is a well-known thriller author as well as a voluminous comic-book writer. During this talk he shared some gems of inspiration and sweat on writing My favorite comes from his thesis adviser at Vassar.

Tom Cook worked for Hanna-Barbera and Filmation studios in the 70's and 80's. He worked on nearly every episode of Filmation's He-man and the Masters of the Universe. He talked about the process of making a cartoon for Saturday morning in the era before computers and animation software.

Jeff Parker is a comic-book writer currently working on Aquaman, Batman '66, and his own project Meteor Men

While at the con, I picked up a copy of Rucka's Lazarus, Natalie Nourigat's A Boy & a Girl, Jen van Meter's work on JSA, Jeff Parker's Meteor Men and Batman '66, and special thanks to Eric Trautmann for a copy of his work Flash Gordon: Zeitgeist.

Oh, and here's a crummy photo of Sean Astin, Joe Pantalione, and Garret Wang talking about The Goonies and the Lord of the Rings.  The talk was interesting, but I was too far back to (a) get a good photo or (b) see clearly enough to sketch Astin and Pantalione.

Speaking of crowded rooms, Ben Saunders' talk on Secret Identity Politics was surprisingly popular. I was approximately 120th in line, in a room that held 120 people. I decided to forego the talk, but having seen him speak before, I figured it must have been interesting.  He needs to bottle that. Or, at least write another book..


Secrets of the Batcave 1968

I always found Batman's tags and labels helpful and inspiring to a kid who wanted to build his own Batcave. At one point I worked with some friends to renovate an abandoned horse shed into a secret hideout. Although fun, it was never as impressive as Batman's Batcave from 1968.  Under Wayne Manor, Batman has it all: a lab, computerized crime files, trophy room and Batplane hangar.

While the Batcave was awesome, the Dynamic Duo's utility belts totally confused me. They always seemed to have the right gimmick stowed away, but these detailed drawings are pretty limited.
Time hasn't been kind to the utility belts. "Self-sealing flaps" are about as fancy as Velcro, and nearly everyone has a two-way communicator (cell phone, duh!).

This last panel is from a story where Batman and Robin design a new Batplane. I don't think I'd like to have to use the "human ejector tubes."


Inside the Baxter Bldg.

I always loved the maps and cutaway views of the Justice League's headquarters, Challenger Island, or the Bat Cave.  Switching from DC to Marvel, here's "Inside the Baxter Bldg." from the Fantastic Four Annual #1.  Pencils by Kirby.

Note that "Torch and sister Sue Storm commute from suburbs -- use rooms below for convenience."  Both Ben's room and Johnny's room stand between Sue and Reed.  Sue's room is dangerously close to the exhaust pipes from the rocket silo.


On the 100th Anniversary of World War I

World War I was the unfortunate result of mixing modern technology with traditional warfare.  Applying the assembly line mentality to the battlefield meant that thousands of new recruits and untried weapons could be quickly fed into the trenches, often with disastrous results.  Uniforms, and protective headgear were not made for modern warfare -- they were usually more of a liability than an asset.  And although planes, tanks and guns were changing almost daily, those so-called advances only made the weapons more unpredictable.  Meanwhile, medical treatment was the same as the previous century. Antibiotics and sterile environments were simply not available, and even a simple wound was often fatal. 

This year marks 100 years since the beginning of World War I.  Obviously, one hundred years means that hardly anyone alive today was there, and of those few, probably none of them remember it. So, it is up to the historians and researchers to keep the memories and experiences alive.  

Since 1991, and CNN's reporting on the first Gulf War, Americans have been used to immediate, and often sanitized, images of warfare.  Going backward in time, TV and newsreel footage of Vietnam, the Korean War, and World War II are also commonly available. But photos and movies from World War I are much less common. So, it is interesting to see two recent graphic novels covering World War I.

The Great War: July 1, 1916 by Joe Sacco is an epic accordion book focusing on one day during World War I: July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme.  The battle was supposed to be the turning point in the war, the Big Push, that would break the German line and morale.

The Great War is a 24-page long epic scroll of the battle.  It starts with a scene of British General Douglas Haig strolling the grounds of the Scottish Churches' Hut on the ramparts of Montreuil-sur-Mer in France. As the scene shifts we see the rear lines, new recruits, polished cavalry soldiers, and neatly packaged Howitzers alongside stacks of rations and supplies.

The scroll continues into the night before the battle, showing soldiers packed into trenches so tightly that most slept standing up, if at all.  And then, with a bang, the battle begins at 7 am as scheduled by the regimented British commanders.

Sacco says that one of his influences was the Bayeux Tapestry.  The reference is immediately obvious, although, the Normans were more successful in their attack than the British were at the Somme.  Of the 120,000 British troops in the battle, nearly half of them were dead by the end of the day.  The basic assumptions for the attack were horribly inaccurate, but once the machine of war was put into motion it was almost impossible to stop.  To call off any part of the attack would have branded the generals and captains as cowards. Additionally, military policemen were placed among the troops to stop any stragglers from retreating and turn them toward the front.

A detail of one page of the panorama of the Western Front in Joe Sacco's The Great War.
Accompanying the scroll is a separate book "On The Great War," with notes by Joe Sacco, and an essay by Adam Hochschild providing some historical context for the battle.

In Sacco's notes he mentions Goddamn This War! by Jacques Tardi & Jean-Pierre Verney.  Originally published in French in 1993, Fantagraphics has recently printed it in English.

Jacques Tardi has been a renowned comics artist in France since the 70s, but a lack of translation into English has limited distribution of his work in the US.  In the past couple years Fantagraphics, especially the late Kim Thompson, has been translating his books.  

Goddamn This War! is a punch-in-the-gut recounting of a French soldier's experience during World War One. The story is told from a first-person point of view, but it seems like we could be jumping from any soldier to another.  The narrative is disjointed, and most characters only appear briefly before they die in a trench, or are blown up, or are shot before a firing squad.  The only recurring character is a German soldier who appears from time to time as the opposing army's version of our unreliable narrator.

Simply put, war is hell.  Soldiers are shot, blown up, caught in barb wire, buried as trenches cave in, and die in myriad miserable ways.  Even when there's hope there's death. Men brought back from the front have simple wounds and are expected to recover, but then die from gangrene. One reason, is that the wounded are transported in 8-horse, 40 man rail-cars that are still soiled by horse manure, adding to the infection.

Goddamn This War! has a lot more narrative than The Great War. One interesting commentary includes the story of Maggi Kub stores.  These were Swiss stores that sold soup bouillon and other groceries, but because of the name the French thought they were German stores, and fronts for spies. In a fit of paranoia, their billboards were thought to be directions for the invading Germans, so a French minister ordered destruction of any sign near railways.

The story is tough, and the artwork holds up its end of the work.  While it starts full of color, after the first year of war the drawings are mostly shades of grey punctuated with red. After the war ends, some colors return, but not many.

As living memory of World War I fades, both Sacco in The Great War, and Tardi and Verney in Goddamn This War! provide a "you are there" perspective on events of the war. They do this with cartoons, but the artwork provides enough immediacy that you feel for the drawings on the page.  This is important. As Sacco mentions, it is not for him to indict anyone, it is enough to present the images to make one realize the futility of war.


Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley

This review should open with a warning: reading Relish will make you hungry.

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen is a foodie graphic memoir with recipes.  It's less like Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" and more like Ruth Reichl's "Tender at the Bone," exploring the influences her family and friends had on her food experiences as she grew up.  There are twelve chapters, ranging from her memories growing up with foodie parents living in New York to trips to Mexico, Japan and Italy, and her later experiences as she lives on her own.

Much of the book looks at her family.  We learn that when her mother was pregnant with Lucy, she worked as a cheese monger at Dean & DeLuca, and also found catering gigs.  Her father puts a strong emphasis on culture in books, music and art, as well as enjoying fine meals.  Together, they provide both the environment and genetics that spur Knisley to create Relish.
Young Lucy is unaware she's a foodie
Although this memoir is personal, it is easy to find common themes that everyone can relate to.  Her trip to Japan sounds a lot like my own experience when I chaperoned a group of school kids to that country. I also recognize the feeling of having a craving, and then baking a batch of cookies simply to eat one.  Similarly, her story of eating a croissant (or four) early one morning in Venice, Italy sounds familiar.  All this underscores her point: food brings us together, and many of us live to eat.

The cartoon style does a great job at visual short-cuts.  I particularly liked one frame showing her looking into a window at the cute cheesemaker guys -- no need to describe further. Also, she puts the cartoon medium to good use.  Rather than find actual portraits of Mr. Fox and Mr. Obel, the founders of the store where she worked, she draws them as she imagines them.  I also liked the cartoon comparisons of her mother as Demeter, and her father as Zeus.

The drawings of the food, while cartoony, still make me hungry.  Even better, the recipes sound delicious.  I'll have to try her sushi drink -- ginger, lime and maple syrup over seltzer water ("add vodka to taste").

Relish works on many levels: as a memoir, as a YA reader, as a recipe book. Best of all, the levels mix together, like the layered enchilada her mother made.  Excuse me now while I go shopping for ingredients to make the sauteed mushrooms with garlic and olive oil.

These tamales, even though they're comics, look so good.
From "Relish" by Lucy Knisley
Lucy Knisley is also the author of French Milk and Make Yourself Happy. Her website is www.lucyknisley.com.


Habibi by Craig Thompson

Four years ago, before "Habibi" was published, Craig Thompson was at Stumptown Comics Fest to explain his work in progress. The answers were obscure, as if he himself was not entirely clear what he had wrought.

Later, when I had a chance to actually read the story, I realized the problem was not with Thompson's understanding, but the arena for discussion. Habibi is like a golden braided cord, woven through with layers both visual and metaphoric.  In many ways it's a meditation on stories, presenting many other stories within the book, similar to Scheherazade's One Thousand and One Nights. Next to this complexity, Thompson's brief presentation is excused for being only superficial and vague.

Massive in size and content, the book presents a world that could be the the present or the near future.  It focuses on two two orphans, Dodola and Zam, who escape slavery to grow up together on a boat in the desert.  For a while their stranded boat is an oasis, until they become slaves of one kind or another once again.

As mentioned, the setting at first seems ancient, but things like motorcycles and plastic bottles, modern cities and water wars intrude. While Habibi also explores the stories of the Quran and the Bible, it focuses on the story of desert life, water lost and found.

Craig Thompson has had a quirky body of work. From his early cartoonish and poignant "Chunky Rice," to the breakout memoir "Blankets," to his sketchbook "Carnet de Voyage," all of them and none of them prepare you for "Habibi."  The black and white art is stark, at time feeling like a linoleum or woodcut. Thompson often pauses in the story to present full page musings on Arabic history, or comparing the Muslim and Christian cultures.  Later, he has a full section consisting of only words contained in otherwise blank frames.

Here are my notes from his appearance at Stumptown Comics Fest 2010:
As of 2010, Craig Thompson had been working on Habibi for the past six years.  He said that "Blankets" took three and a half years, completing about two pages a day.  A lot of the background patterns in Habibi were inspired by calligraphy and doing the patterns was a way for him to meditate on them.

Q: Why not do your work on a computer?
A: Many reasons. American guilt, craftsmanship, (he) wants to be egoless, humble. Drawing this way is taking the glamour out of the process.  It's also a sort of a psychedelic experience, a Unity of experience like Sufi meditation.  Influenced by Rumi and Hafiz  (Persian poets).  (He is) trying to achieve unity through drawing, which is sort of ironic because he's doing this alone.

At this point Thompson follows a tangent, talking about which artists he likes to draw with:

  • His favorite drawing days are with Theo Ellsworth.  He notices a difference between drawing with American vs European artists. The American school is very precise, controlled.  The French disdain this: they scorn penciling, preferring to go direct to ink.
  • He has traveled with Chris Ware and also with Seth.
  • He mentions a French cartoonist Edmond Baudoin, whose work has not been translated into English.
  • Q: How did your travel influence your work?
  • A: The sketches from his sketchbook influenced Habibi.  (He) had broken up with his girlfriend, so he was traveling alone.  During a trip to Europe the publishers set up too many signings, stressed. So he took off to Morocco. Due to a deadline he had to do production work in the middle of the trip.

Q: Can you read Arabic?
A: He can read the alphabet and can sound out words, but can't translate.

Q: Where the character names in Habibi come from?
A: "Zam" comes from the sacred well of zamzam.   Dodola is a Serbian rain goddess. There was a long research phase for Habibi.

Q: What's your process?
A: Did an initial sketchbook as stream of consciousness. Hated it. Then created a nonlinear structured and that punched it up. Took years before he realized the ending of story-- only last year (2009).  Fall of 2006 is when he actually started drawing the book.  The publisher did not ask for a lot of editing, but they mostly acted as a proofreader.  Thompson spent six months revising the ending.

Q:Where did you get the inspiration for Habibi?
A: (The settings come) from actual architecture and photos, but it's always tweaked.  In the mornings, he does sketches and writes ideas. Afternoons are for revision and finishing. Almost every day he wings it a bit.
Thompson's goal with Habibi was to humanize and compare Arabic society with Christian society.  At the time in 2010 he said he had set a personal challenge: five books in five years.

"Habibi" won the 2012 Eisner Award for Best Writer/Artist, and has been nominated for a 2014 Oregon Book Award Best Graphic Novel.  Craig Thompson's website www.dootdootgarden.com.