12/31/12

"Good As Lily" by Derek Kirk Kim

Derek Kirk Kim's graphic novel "Tune: Vanishing Point " has been getting some acclaim this year. Intrigued, I decided to get a couple of his books from the library and check them out for myself.  So, my first introduction to Kim's work is his 2007 work "Good As Lily," illustrated by Jesse Hamm.

Some sites have called this a YA graphic novel, although in my opinion the "YA" tag is purely for marketing. Kim's pacing is delicate yet interesting.  The story starts with a bang as Grace Kwon is kidnapped in broad daylight as she sits in the park.  She's not alarmed, however, and we discover it's because her friends have abducted her for a surprise 18th birthday picnic. During the party we meet each friend and learn about his or her relationship with Grace. Just as the story feels like a shoujo manga like Peach Girl, Kim introduces a magical element in the form of a strange pig pinata sold to Grace by a strange old woman.  The scene of them breaking the pinata is strangely satisfying, words alone can't accurately describe the feeling.

What evolves from there is basically "Back to the Future" in reverse: three versions of Grace from other periods in her life manifest themselves to live with her.  The nine-year-old version, which Grace calls Katie is a glutton for cookies and candy.  The not-yet-thirty-year-old "Shana" seems to dread the future, but also is fixating on Grace's cute Drama teacher.  And the 70 year-old "Jessica" only wants to smoke, drink and watch "Antiques Roadshow" (because "Walker, Texas Ranger" isn't on for another two hours.)

You could say the story is also similar to "A Christmas Carol," with the three ghosts visiting, except that these other versions of Grace aren't ghosts. They interact with friends, lead fundraisers, start food fights and both help and hinder Grace as she tries to navigate the pinball events of high school.

Kim has put together an engaging story, with a satisfying arc and resolution.  The plot points are only occasionally predictable. You know that the boy she's grown up with, and overlooked since 3rd grade will obviously be the future boyfriend, but who could have predicted how they finally pay for production of the spring play? (I'm not telling.)

Kim has made much of his career doing webcomics, and halfway through book I was worried that this would be an ongoing story, drawn out over multiple volumes. The weakness of many webcomics is that they don't always focus on a definitive end. "Good As Lily," however, didn't disappoint -- the resolution was clear and satisfying.

After reading "Good As Lily" I'm excited to read more of Kim's work.  For those who are interested in the artist's commentary, Kim's website has a series of posts providing a commentary on the development of the characters and the art. The Wikipedia article on Kim is disappointingly short, although I'm sure it will grow in time.

Kim's website is http://www.lowbright.com/  or you can follow him on twitter @derekkirkkim.
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11/9/12

Knock, knock

According to Wikipedia, Knock-Knock jokes were first made popular in 1936 on Fred Allen's radio show. While reading a copy of "Police Comics" from 1941 I found this sequence that's essentially a visual version of a knock-knock joke and I wondered how long the artist had been planning to use it. Because of the layout of the comic the first two panels are in the middle of the page, while the second two show at the bottom. I took the liberty of laying it out as four consecutive panels, the way you might see it in the daily comics.



The character is #711, a man who was wrongfully sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit. As part of his crusade for justice he puts on a cape and hat and tucks his pants into his socks (yes!), and escapes prison on a nightly basis to fight criminals and right wrongs.  He took his name from his prisoner number, so it seems odd that the warden doesn't suspect a thing. The comic fails to explain why his normally green prison garb turns maroon when he's in costume as #711.


10/14/12

What makes for a "good comic"?

"Reading Comics" reminded me of another book, recommended by Brian Michael Bendis as an essential reference for his comics class at Portland State University.  Although it's not specifically about comics, David Mamet's book "On Directing" explores the requirements that a visual medium puts on a story.  In one lecture Mamet builds a story based solely on the essential image of each scene, cutting away the dialogue to the bare essentials.

Incidentally, I recently started reading some older Golden Age comics. I found some of these comics, such as Will Eisner's The Spirit, or Captain Marvel Adventures interesting, regardless of nostalgia.

But other comics, while interesting, just weren't as engaging.  For example, "Invisible Scarlet O'Neill" always seemed like a comic that should have been better than it was. I mean: here's an experienced, competent artist writing a story about a sexy detective who can turn invisible, fights crime, and occasionally gets her dress ripped.  The story should be pretty good. As an experiment, I decided to take a part of a page of the story and examine some potential problems.

The first panel shows Sandy describing his predicament, despite the gag.
His speech is surprisingly coherent considering the beating he just received -- it probably should've been a thought balloon.  Perhaps the oddest thing about this panel is the placement of the narrator's caption, which seems like it should be at the top of the panel:  "And downstairs..."

In the second panel the thug considerately explains why he's torturing Sandy.

The third panel is most egregious.  The boss Malignant explains the drama, while the stooge partakes in some maid & butler dialogue.
This thug must really like explaining his actions, since he's talking to himself in the fourth panel.

Sandy, meanwhile, despite his concussion, is surprisingly astute at identifying the sound of someone shoveling mixing cement.

And finally in the lower right we see Malignant returning to his "date" with Scarlet O'Neill and some classic 50's noir dialogue.

So, while I wouldn't say that "Invisible Scarlett O'Neil" is poorly done, it shows that more could have been done to bring out a purely visual style in the comic. It seems like the modern ethic is to drop thought balloons, captions, and anything that distracts from the imagery on the page.

10/7/12

"Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu-Earth Volume 1" by Dave Gibbons, Alan Moore, et al.

In the distant future, a brutal war is waged between the Nort and the Southers on a strategically located planet called Nu Earth. Once it was a habitable planet, but after years of war the air is poisonous, the seas corrosive, and the only population are those engaged in combat. The Southers create a regiment of genetically engineered infantry (GIs) who can can survive on Nu Earth without protection, and have special features that make them better soldiers, but during one of the GI offensive a traitor exposes their location, and all of them are wiped out except the lone Rogue Trooper. He quest is to find the traitor and the generals that lead the attack and to avenge his fellow GIs. As part of his equipment he has the bio-chips of three fallen comrades embedded in his rifle, his helmet and his backpack. The bio-chips were a way for the military to save on training: if a soldier dies in combat they could download the soldier's persona into the chip and then later upload it to a clone for a ready-made soldier.

Alan Moore's name is on the cover, but in this volume he has contributed only two stories. Most of the stories are by Gerry Finley-Day, who also created the Rogue Trooper character and is apparently a real "idea man" for 2000 AD comics. The ongoing premise is of the Rogue Trooper searching for the traitor who betrayed the GIs, but Finley-Day does a good job of making each story personal, much like the war stories in DC's "G.I. Combat" comics. The Rogue Trooper stories ran in 2000AD comics, which isn't like US comics. It came out weekly, didn't have a glossy cover, and contained serialized anthologies. That meant that each issue devoted only three or four pages per character. Finley-Day does a good job of summarizing the past, jumping into the scenario, and then bringing it down to earth in only a few pages.

Of the longer multi-part stories, "Fort Neuro" was the least interesting. In that story, for some reason the Franks, Li-mees, and Roms have all assumed affectations which play out as ridiculous stereotypes (Napoleonic balls, Edwardian hunts, and disco parties). Only thanks to Rogue, and a couple of loyal robots, do the Southers break away from the trap and defend themselves against the Norters. I much rather preferred the stories that advanced the mission of Rogue in finding his traitor.

This volume is all in black & white, which fits the topic, but I also especially like the art work of Dave Gibbons (pre-"Watchmen"), who has some amazing imagination for composition. The black & white gives the stories a stark feeling, and mentions to the color of Rogue's skin (blue) or the acid yellow fog of chemicals are enough for me to add my own colors. Of the other artists, I found that Colin Wilson also had a fine line. Cam Kennedy and Brett Ewins do nice jobs, but they tend more toward darker, heavier lines.

For the sheer bulk, at $19.99 this book is worth the price. Given that the stories have great characters, clever jokes and insights, and tonnes of great art, it's even a better value.

Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu Earth 1 Stories by Gerry Finley-Day and Alan Moore. Art by Dave Gibbons, Colin Wilson, Brett Ewins and Cam Kennedy.
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8/22/12

Boys, Girls Men, Women! The World is on FIRE

Who could ignore an ad with a headline like this: "Boys, Girls Men, Women! The World is on FIRE. Serve The LORD and you can have these Prizes! (You can make money too!)"?



I found this ad from the FUNMan corporation on the back of Charlton "Strange Suspense Stories" #18 from 1954. The text reads:

"We will send you the wonderful prizes pictured on this page... or dozens of others, such as jewelry, radium dial wrist watches, tableware, tools, U-Make-It kits, leather kits, sewing kits, electric clocks, pressure cookers, scout equipments, model airplanes, and many others...all WITHOUT ONE PENNY OF COST. Crime, sin, graft, wars are the greatest they have ever been. Our leaders say a reawakening of Christianity is needed to save us. You can do your share by spreading the gospel into every home in your community. Merely show your friends and neighbors inspiring, beautiful Religious Wall Motto plaques. Many buy six or more to hang in every room. An amazing value, only 35cents... sell on sight. Secure big, cash commissions or exciting prizes for selling few as one set of 24 Mottos. Big Prize catalog sent Free! Serve the LORD and earn prizes you want."

Never mind about the radium dial wrist watches, just the name kills me: The FUNMan's Fun Club. Who could resist?  "Send No Money...We Trust You"!

7/25/12

Philip K Dick: A Minority Report Report

One of the greatest advancements that the Internet brings to civilization is the ability to collaborate.  People can espouse their opinions on a blog or twitter feed and other people will give them immediate feedback.  Another way that collaboration occurs is by taking existing material and mashing it up with new tropes, leading to books like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”  This collaborating and mashing up occurs within a certain culture, often based on previously obscure subgroups, such as the fans of Philip K. Dick.  In fact, part of the concept of anothen Internet concept, The Long Tail, is that online stores (or repositories) can provide “small volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items.”  This allows for widespread cross-pollination of cultural artifacts, which are subsequently paired, revised, and redistributed.  In a way this is an age of revisionism, and what better story to consider in this light than Dick’s “Minority Report”?  As Wikipedia summarizes:
“"The Minority Report" is a 1956 science fiction short story by Philip K. Dick, first published in Fantastic Universe. The story is about a future society where murders are prevented through the efforts of three mutants who can see the future. Paradoxes and alternate realities are created by the precognition of crimes when the chief of police intercepts a precognition that he is about to murder a man he has never met. The story also touches upon the dangers of a powerful post-war military during peacetime. Like many stories dealing with knowledge of future events, "The Minority Report" questions the existence of free will.”
(Note: At this point I will reveal spoilers upon spoilers.  That is, if you consider plot points to be spoilers.  If, on the other hand, you are like the ancient Greeks and place more value in the telling of the story than in the plot, then read on.)
In the 2002 movie “Minority Report [Blu-ray],” Tom Cruise plays Chief of Precrime John Anderton, a man whose son Sean was murdered ten years earlier. As a result, he has separated from his wife, and using Neuroin, an illegal psychoactive drug, to dull the pain of his memories. Since his son’s death he has also thrown himself into his work at Precrime to the exclusion of any other activities. The program has successfully prevented any murders for six years and it’s preparing to go national when the system suddenly predicts that Anderton will kill a stranger called Leo Crow.  Predictably, Anderton goes on the run.  Eventually Anderton meets Crow, but avoids killing him.  Crow then commits suicide in such a way as to throw the suspicion on Anderton. This action makes Anderton to question the validity of the Precrime system.  Investigating the minority report – the dissenting vision of the future as it was produced by the precog Agatha – he discovers that Director Burgess used the existence of minority reports in Precrime to cover up his own involvement in the murder of the Agatha’s mother. When Burgess is exposed he kills himself, Precrime is disbanded, Anderton reunites with his wife and they decide to have a baby. The precogs are released to an undisclosed location where they can live their lives in peace.  It’s a fun, well-made movie.  Max Von Sydow is always a great villain and Tom Cruise shows some depth, avoiding a reprise of one of his “Top Gun” personas.  But the most interesting part of this movie is when you compare it to the original short story.

In the 1956 story by the same name, Precrime Commissioner John A. Anderton is an older man who lives with his younger wife and no children.  He goes on the run when the Precrime system predicts he will commit a murder.  True to the paranoia and shifting reality of PKD, at first Anderton reads the victim’s name as Ed Witwer, his successor.  He suspects that his wife and Witwer are having an affair and are conspiring to frame him for murder to get him out of the picture. Then his wife, also a police officer, confronts him and tells him the true victim: a stranger called Leopold Kaplan.  Anderton goes undercover and learns that the man he is supposed to murder is a retired Army general and a member of a secret organization working to destroy the Precrime program.  The Army wants to end Precrime because it has taken power and funding away from the military, so Kaplan framed Anderton for pre-murder to create a situation where the military can stage a coup.  If Anderton avoids killing Kaplan then that undermines the Precrime system. In order to save Precrime, Anderton kills Kaplan, avoiding all crises except his own personal one.  The government shows leniency and deports him to the space colony Centaurus X (“Centten”).  His decides to accompany him on his interstellar exile.

In Dick’s short story the precogs are mumbling idiot-savants who channel bits of the future.  They are barely functional and are recognized only by their names given to them by the technicians: “Donna”, “Mike” and “Jerry.”  Precrime is a comprehensive system that includes petty crimes such as income tax evasion, assault, extortion as well as cutting “felonies by ninety-nine and decimal point eight percent.” Rather than the brain death in the movie, precriminals are sentenced to detention camps.  Anderton explains that he has been working on the Precrime system for thirty years – so it’s evident he’s not a young man.  The original reason for three precogs was to have a system of checks and balances.
“…the system of three precogs finds its genesis in the computers of the middle decades of this century.  How are the results of an electronic computer checked? By feeding the data to a second computer of identical design. But two computers are not sufficient. If each computer arrived at a different answer it is impossible to tell a priori which is correct. The solution, based on a careful study of statistical methods, is to utilize a third computer to check the results of the first two. In this manner a so-called majority report is obtained.”
Given the same premise, the themes of the short story and the movie could not be more dissimilar.  In the book, Anderton strives to save the status quo, which means he must submit to fate, lose his free will and kill Kaplan as predicted.  After the killing he accepts exile as a punishment.  The movie, however, espouses a more hopeful theme.  When Anderton confronts Burgess with his crimes tells the Director “You know your own future, which means you can change it if you want to.”  At which point Burgess turns the gun away from Anderton and kills himself.  Anderton, who never kills anyone during the course of the movie, reunites with his wife and starts his life over.  In the short story the precogs are merely machines in a system while in the movie they become realized characters with a future (in a shack somewhere in the San Juan Islands, I’d guess from the final shot).  So, how did these two different visions of the same story come to pass?

But wait! Since this is about the “Minority Report”, there’s still another vision: the film script.  In adapting the short story to the film there’s an intermediate step: the film script.  Where the story is thought, and the film is action, the script is the voice that puts the words into the characters.  Where the story is the intent and the movie the result, the script describes the plan for executing the action based on the intent.

No doubt there were multiple revisions of the script before they DreamWorks arrived at a shooting copy, but I will use as my source the one labeled “Aug 15th 1997 rewrite by Jon Cohen.”  This script raises some new ideas that eventually make it into the movie. Instead of just going undercover, as in the book, Cohen comes up with the idea of the eye-scans and the invasive police crabs, forcing Anderson to undergo eye-replacement surgery in a shady motel room.  Unlike both the movie and the story, the script follows some dead-end pathways.  Anderton’s name is changed to Anderson, and his victim isn’t a stranger, but Ed Witwer.  In the script Witwer is the driving force behind the conspiracy to frame Anderson, but the precogs themselves are fighting for their own freedom by providing uncertain futures to both Witwer and Anderson.  The precogs work together to provide evidence of Witwer’s betrayal to Anderson because they want to be free of the Precrime system – it physically pains them.  In this script the precogs have different names: Rose, James, and a third unnamed brother who dies at Witwer’s hand.  In the script the themes deal with questioning the righteousness of an oppressive paternalistic society. In an aside that also comments on the cinematic tendency to frame PKD scripts in terms of film noir, one character mentions that “it’s 2040 and we’ve wrapped ourselves up in the 1950’s like a big security blanket.”

So, what do we have in the end but life imitating art? Three versions of the “Minority Report,” one feeding into another, being altered slightly, and then producing a new result.  Each revision of the narrative becomes its own “Minority Report.”

Coming soon: "Philip K. Dick and The Fractal Nature of Reality"
Read the first part of this essay, "The Revisionism of Philip K Dick."

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The Revisionism of Philip K Dick

"What is wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote."- E.M. Forster

Sometime in the early ‘80s, when “My Sharona” sounded fresh and “big hair” meant a beehive hairdo from the ‘50s, I wrote my practice AP English paper on the topic of false perceptions in Philip K Dick’s novel “A Scanner Darkly.”  I’ll never forget the look on Mr. Collar’s face as he handed back the paper, admitting it was well-written, but not the kind of essay that would get me a good score on the actual test.  The people grading the exams were looking for more literary topics and science fiction just wasn’t literature.

At the time I had discovered PKD only a year earlier with “Dr. Bloodmoney or How We Got Along after the Bomb ,” and nearly every other book I read for the next twelve months was by Dick.  I’d devoured “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” and the Starlog articles about “Blade Runner,” which was still in pre-production, had me jabbering with excitement.  Dick himself was still alive, although he’d die of a stroke a few months before the first movie ever based on his work was released.

There was a certain sad irony to his death because the early 80s were both his best and worst times, his star was simultaneously rising and falling.  The back of his short story collection “The Golden Man” proclaims it as “The first major science fiction book of the 1980’s!” (It was published February, 1980).  “Philip K. Dick may well be the next SF writer to follow Bradbury and Vonnegut in being ‘discovered’ by the mass audience!”  Along with the movie “Blade Runner,” plans were in the works for movies based on “We can remember it for you wholesale” and “The Second Variety” (you may know them as “Total Recall” and “Screamers”).  Yet, according to interviews he had a distrust of many people who admired him, and in the midst of all this still had money problems.  According to the introduction of “Golden Man” in one month in 1977 he made only nine dollars.

Yet, the troubles of the author himself barely registered to me.  I only knew that I had found someone who could take the world, turn it inside out, make me feel for the characters, and then invert everything again, all the while telling a dang good story.  Given that, how could the works of PKD fail to be literature? I had read other science fiction in school: “Brave New World,” “1984”, “Animal Farm”, short stories like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and Shirley Jackson’s stories “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts” and “The Lottery.”  As we were taught in class these stories had themes, symbolism, and strong characters, and they were worthy of study. As far as my high school intellect could discern, Dick’s works were on par with these stories.  They also had another draw: the suggestion of a shifting reality, a realm where the world could suddenly change our viewpoint, where one illusion was torn away like a wet Kleenex to be replaced with a new illusion of reality.

It’s obvious why a high school kid might be interested in shifting realities: as I graduated I was about to experience a similar shift – moving away from home, going to college, meeting new people.  But those changers are minor from the perspective of 30 years later.  The technological changes the world has undergone are even more massive and amazing: on demand entertainment, the birth and evolution of the home computer from a suitcase-size lump to a palm-top screen, the existence of the Internet, and the development of online virtual communities with the promise of instant communication anywhere on the planet.  Those thirty years have brought quite a few of the tropes of science fiction into reality, and so quickly that the Kleenex is hardly ripped away before there’s a new reality bursting through.

Dick liked to refer to the I Ching, the Book of Changes, quite a bit in his stories.  Perhaps by looking at how the world has changed, and how change came to the work of Philip K Dick we can determine whether it can now be considered literary.
Continue reading with "A Minority Report Report."
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6/28/12

With apologies to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I was re-reading "The Little Prince" the other day. There's a newer translation which is pretty good -- a little more conversational for the 21st century. It still captures the childlike spirit of the original French story. Still, nothing compares to reading it in French: "Dessine-moi un mouton." On the other hand, this totally inappropriate French pun popped into my head.
"dessine-moi un glouton"

6/24/12

Match the comic book covers

Research has shown that playing games helps keep the brain agile. Here are some old comic covers in a memory game to help keep your aging brain young.
Click on the backs of the comics to show the covers. If you get a pair of covers that pair stays uncovered. The game ends when you've uncovered all pairs. Try to uncover all pairs in as few tries as possible.
Hey Kids! Match the comic book covers

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6/15/12

"Is That All There Is?" by Joost Swarte and Kim Thompson

Joost Swarte
Joost Swarte (Photo credit: Andy Field (Hubmedia))
I've been reading Joost Swarte's collected works Is That All There Is? I first learned about the dutch artist with the amazing fine line when I found his work in Heavy Metal Magazine in the mid-80's.  In style, the pictures looked like Herge's "clean line" Tintin, if a bit more art-deco styling. But in content the stories were equivalent to the underground comix of the 70's.  Although he still wears plus-fours, Swarte's signature character Jopo de Pojo is practically an anti-Tintin: a black face instead of Tintin's pink one, and a backward-swooshing shark fin of hair contrary to the boy reporter's impertinent tuft.  Jopo doesn't mind having a good time, and Tintin would be shocked at the sexual antics in Swarte's comics.

One of the best things about re-discovering the stories in this new edition is Kim Thompson's careful translations. Kim Thompson is vice president and co-publisher of Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books, as well as an accomplished translator who speaks multiple languages.  He gives some insight into his translations on his website.

For example, in these panels Jopo bumps into a woman on the street and breaks her packages. Thompson explains the lowbrow humor
"The lady is complaining that the fall has broken her just-purchased "ballen" (round Christmas tree ornaments) and her "piek" (an ornament for the top of the tree), but both words have a sexual connotation ("balls" and "dick" if you will), resulting in a Beavis and Butt-head huh-huh-huh effect."
There are some other tricky translations, such as when a woman in a bar leaves a rude note to Jopo written in lipstick on the mirror, and another time when the character speaks only in rebus pictures. Here's another one that's just great for showing off Jopo's spike of hair.
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5/6/12

Portland's Influences on The Simpsons

Milhouse Van Houten
Milhouse Van Houten (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Does everyone know that a lot of the Simpson characters are named after streets in Portland? Maybe not everyone, but just in case, the Oregonian has a fun article filling in the lines.

It's barely one letter to go from N.E. Flanders to Ned Flanders. Other characters with street-based names: Milhouse Van Houten, Reverend Lovejoy, Bob Terwilliger aka Sideshow Bob, Kearney the bully, and Mayor Quimby. Mr. Burns' name is an amalgam of Montgomery Park (which used to be the Montgomery Ward offices) and Burnside street. Not mentioned in the article is Homer's half-brother Herb Powell (played by Danny DeVito). He could have been named after Powell boulevard.

Also, for some reason I always assumed that Principal Skinner is named after Skinner's Butte, a hill in Eugene, Oregon, close to the real-life Springfield.

Some other more tentative Portland influences on the Simpsons? The nuclear power plant where Homer works is based on the Trojan Nuclear plant (now closed) near St. Helens. I know that Matt Groening contributed artwork to a campaign mailer that was dedicated to shutting down the Trojan Nuclear plant. And, while many cities had afternoon cartoon shows hosted by clowns or other friendly (yet oddly scary) personalities, I'd venture to guess that Krusty the Klown was inspired by Rusty Nails, who hosted various children's television shows in the Portland, Oregon, television market from 1957 to 1972 - the exact time Groening would have been watching cartoons.
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Beyond the Cape at Stumptown 2012

One of the panels at Stumptown Comics Fest was titled "Beyond the Cape: Genre Fiction in Comics."  The panel was overly large so it was hard for the participants to have a true discussion of how superheroes contrast with their work, which was mostly horror-type comics, but it was a good opportunity to hear from a variety of creators about their own comics.  Vera Brosgol, author of "Anya's Ghost," didn't say much during the session but I'd heard her talk earlier in the week (which I have yet to write up).  I ended up buying copies of most of the other authors' works.  Here's a quick rundown of each book.

Batton Lash's "Tales of Supernatural Law" has a certain wry humor. The comic circles around a law office who defends the undead in law cases -- sort of like Ally McBeal meets the Old Cryptkeeper.  One story arc, for example, has to do with a group of ghouls who are accused of exhuming for revenge a Frederic Wertham character called Dr. Forrest Bertrum. During a panel Lash mentioned that he based his script on lawyers simply because he was drawing for a local newspaper and there were a lot of law offices in the neighborhood.  Lash also draws for Archie comics, and you can see a touch of this style in "Supernatural."  He seems like a friendly guy.

In a similar vein Brandon Seifert & Lukas Ketner offer up "Witch Doctor, Vol. 1: Under the Knife."  Described as "House meets Fringe" it follows Dr. Vincent Morrow, a man versed in both physiognomy and the dark arts as he cures physical ailments via the spiritual realm.  In the introductory story his patient's soul has acquired an immune syndrome disorder, becoming possessed by multiple demons, requiring that they turn him into a bubble boy for exorcism.  The monsters are creative and thoroughly disgusting, while Morrow in his impeccable white suit provides a House-like narrative to the chaos.

I was sort of surprised that I ended up with two supernatural comics set in the Old West.  "Strangeways the Thirsty" is a typical western tale of a feud between two towns, except one of them is inhabited by vampires.  We follow the path of ex-soldier Seth Collins as he first meets the vampires, learns about them, and battles the creatures and their master.  Author Matt Maxwell lets the story unwind casually, yet keeps the tension, always letting us know that the vampire is at the door.

Multiple people at Stumptown said I had to check out "The Sixth Gun, Vol. 1" by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt - so I did. The best way to describe it is as Wild West meets Lord of the Rings.  The exposition starts with the resurrection of Confederate General Oleander Hume, a murderous army man during the US Civil War who was corrupted by six Satanic pistols.  He's rescued from death by his four horsemen, each with one of the evil guns, shooting pestilence, fire, and one with the power to reanimate any of the dead souls killed by it.  Only one man stands in the way of Hume, Drake Sinclair, and his motives are questionable.  I like the way the story is told so that some plot lines are resolved while new ones develop.  Volume one collects six issues of the comic, completing one story arc while ending on a cliffhanger.  The fantastic elements of the story are inventive - a Soul Tree as an oracle, a pit that might be the entrance to Hell called The Maw, an incarnation of a dragon-like Thunderbird, and hints that the guns have been other weapons through the millennia.  The action is fluid, although the only reservation that I have is at times the kinetic action scenes can be confusing.

While most of the other genre books were supernatural, "Shooters" by Eric Trautmann, Brandon Jerwa and Steve Lieber is a brutal graphic novel about private military contractors.  It tells the story of Chief Warrant Officer Terrence Glass who's deployed to Iraq, is injured, suffers PTSD, and is eventually hired by a private security firm.  As a military contractor he encounters the same fighting he saw while in the Army, while also having the disorienting situation of meeting other private security firms.  The story doesn't pull any punches, while Lieber's artwork is clean, functional and honest. 

4/24/12

Joe Sacco wins Oregon Book Award for Graphic Literature

It was announced yesterday that Joe Sacco’s “Footnotes in Gaza” won the Oregon Book Award for Graphic Literature this year.  It’s a great work, but honestly, all the nominees deserve recognition.  “Footnotes in Gaza” is a serious documentary, as well as a stunning work of art and narrative, but how do you compare it with the other nominees?  Each seems to be in its own category.  For example, Sarah Oleksyk’s “Ivy” is a young adult reader, telling the story of a teenager who’s struggling to find her identity.  Graham Annable’s “Book of Grickle” reminds me of a short story collection, with odd characters finding themselves in odder situations.  Aidan Koch’s “The Whale” is more of a “graphic poem” than a “graphic novel.” It captures the melancholy and feelings of a woman after an accident takes the life of someone close to her.  Meanwhile, Greg Rucka takes the city of Portland and transforms it into a noir landscape in his mystery thriller “Stumptown.”

Each book deserves to win, but it depends on what the judges were looking for. Out of all the books, “Stumptown” is the one that oozes “Oregon” from each page.  “The Whale,” however, could benefit from a boost in distribution – it was only available at Powell’s Books, and there was only one copy left.  The artwork in “Ivy” is great, and the work strikes a chord with some people.  I’m sure that there are many younger readers who identify with the character and the story, so if the goal is to promote reading, or a newer artist, this would be the obvious choice. The “Book of Grickle” is perhaps the lightest work of all of these, but it’s so much fun that it’s hard to ignore it.  And of course, Joe Sacco’s massive work is fully deserving of the honor.

Which brings me to the crux of the matter: how can you compare these works that span genres when the category is grouped by medium?  Comic books are a medium, like film, or novels. So when you’re asked to nominate the five “best” comics how do you choose to evaluate “best?”  Steve Duin makes a good comment about the “Graphic Literature” category that it’s a biennial award, which casts the net even wider.  If anything, the categories should be made narrower, spreading the awards and the spotlight on the various genres of graphic literature that are produced in Oregon.

Speaking of spreading the spotlight, if you really want to see what’s happening right now in graphic literature (aka comic books) in Portland, I’d recommend that you check out the Stumptown Comics Fest. It’s a showcase of graphical narratives from local and national creators that’s a lot of fun, giving both creators and readers a chance to shine.

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4/17/12

"Footnotes in Gaza" by Joe Sacco

"History is a weapon. History ideally strives for objectivity above the battle....But historians, like everyone else, are prisoners of their own experience and their own times....The selection of facts from the past involves an interpretation, a sense of priorities, a sense of values as to what matters." - Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

"History is written by the victors" - Attributed to Winston Churchill

Joe Sacco’s "Footnotes in Gaza" is a massive work on a footnote in history.  It’s massive both in size, over 400 pages long, and in scope, attempting to bring a narrative to a series of conflicts in the murky Middle East that span the past seventy years. His focus is on a single bloody event in 1956 when the Israeli army moved into the Gaza strip, ostensibly looking for instigators in the towns of Khan Younis and Rafah, and eventually killing at least 386 Palestinian refugees, possibly more.  The story is told with painstaking care, peeling back each level as if it were sunburned skin, picking out the details, the facts, the myths, the emotions, and compiling it into a "comic book."

Which also point out the massive effort behind the work.  Sacco’s commitment to his book is evident in the fine print on each page.  On the first page he’s signed it "J. Sacco 3.05". The final page of artwork is signed "4.09." Over four years spent drawing each page, not to mention the time invested researching the subject in libraries and in the field in 2002 and 2003.

To unwind this complex story Sacco has to bring context to so many things: the landscape, political forces over time, key actors in events, and even to address why so many eyewitnesses have unreliable accounts.

"This is the Gaza Strip, 40km long by no more than 12 km wide, one of the most densely populated places on the planet. In 2002-3 when I visited, 1.3 million Palestinians lived on about 70 percent of the land. The rest was the domain of 7,500 Jewish settlers who set up their enclaves after Israel seized Gaza in 1967 and the IDF soldiers who protected them."

The key actors can be divided into categories. There are those recognized by history, such as Moshe Dayan, Egypt’s president Jemal Abder Nasser, as well as the countries of England, France, Russia and the US.  Then there are those who were alive during the incidents of 1956, some participating in Sacco’s project, some long gone or missing who have left only artifacts. And finally there are the characters from Sacco’s present - himself, his guide Abed, the aging mutarad fighter Khaled, a Palestinian resident of Gaza named Ashraf, and the endless stream of the Palestinian refugees who form a sort of Greek chorus, echoing the events we see as they cross the stage.

Gaza has always been a bit hazy in my mind.  I knew, in general, that it was in the Middle East and was involved in the Palestinian / Israeli conflicts.  But I never understood how it came to be, or what life was like for the refugees living in the strip. The most effect it had on my life was when the video group that I work with did a documentary on Rachel Corrie, an NGO representative who was killed while protesting the destruction of homes in Gaza.  Corrie achieves a chapter in "Footnotes in Gaza," not because death in Gaza is unusual, but the death of an American in Gaza brings more attention.

Sacco painstakingly renders key events that made Gaza what it is today: the 1948 declaration of independence by Israel, the refugees pouring into Gaza, the evolution over time from tents to shacks to towns, the institutionalization of this status.  He explores the conflicts and machinations between Israel trying to expand and enforce its borders, Egypt trying to modernize and create a united Arab state, and the creation of  the Fedayeen fighters of the 1950’s, as well as more current events of the 80s, 90s and 21st century.  Sacco doesn’t hesitate to draw the dead and dying in his work, showing the suffering without embellishing it.  But he has also put human faces to events that would otherwise be bloodless, nameless events - "incursions", "shootings", "conflict."

I found a reviewer on Amazon who pointed out a weakness that some might find in "Footnotes in Gaza." "FOOTNOTES' major drawback is its one-sidedness. Sacco provides the official Israeli accounts of the Rafah incident and the home demolitions, but these appear--ironically--as a footnote, relegated to the back of the book. Entirely absent are first-person narratives from Israelis who were there. Since the Israeli documents paint a very different picture of what happened, such narratives would have added credibility either by telling a conflicting side of the story or by confirming the Palestinian testimonies. They would have also allowed readers to glean something about why these shootings happened."

The work that this most reminds me of is Crumb’s "Book of Genesis." Not just because of the content - set in the holy land, full of conflict. But the massive size of this work, and the attention to detail, the composition of the frames. It’s a documentary rendered as graphic literature.  The cartooning style makes "Footnotes in Gaza" much more approachable, and also helps to bring faces and places to history, to a story that has always been confused in my mind.

Sacco has a skill for capturing faces without making them stereotypes or caricature.  Each player in Gaza is identifiable, and shows their humanity in traits such as the way they hold their mouths, a mole or missing teeth, a shock of hair pushed to one side.  I also liked the way that Sacco made the hands so expressive -showing disgust, frustration, anger, or even power.   When drawing himself he seems to be slightly smaller with opaque round glasses. He’s the narrator who stays out of the way, but not enough to fool us into thinking he’s invisible.  Instead he’s there to bring context to the story - much like a TV reporter appears in a news story.

This is perhaps the most interesting part of "Footnotes in Gaza," especially considering the quote by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the one frequently attributed to Winston Churchill.  The Palestinian conflict has gone on so long that’s simultaneously happening, and forgotten history.  Sacco explains to the people as he interviews them that he’s interested in the events of 1956. In one scene a father shows what the destruction of housing and fighting in the Gaza strip is doing to his family: bullet holes in the wall, tanks rumble by, the kids are afraid to use the bathroom that’s on the outer wall of the house.  "Every day here is ’56!" says the man, disgusted by the situation.  Yet, if history is a weapon, this book, "Footnotes in Gaza," is Sacco’s way to bring freedom to the way he sees the Palestinian story, a way to provide a context, a sense of values as to what matters: seeing the Palestinian refugees as people, and treating them as people deserve to be treated.



Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel by Joe Sacco has been nominated for an Oregon Book Award in the category of best "Graphic Literature."  In February of this year it was announced that the book is also slated to be made into a movie.  Joe Sacco doesn't appear to have a website, nor is he on twitter.

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