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.