Sometimes, I really want to love a comic. The initial pass doesn't quite impress me, but there's a spark of something that keeps me following the comic in the hopes that it'll eventually gel. But after a while, it hits me that I'm putting off reviews simply because I don't like a comic as much as I think I should.
Case in point: Tiny Kitten Teeth by Becky Dreistadt and Frank Gibson, a comic I discovered through their awesome guest strip on Octopus Pie. It stars Mewsli, a nervous and impoverished young everycat who has just moved to Owltown with his pet kitten. No sooner has he stepped off the bus than he is greated by the dubious, apparenlty self-appointed welcoming committee: Hootenanny Owl and Regal Begal. Before Mewsli even makes it to his new home, the hip kids of Owltown have bought him clothes, dragged him to a party, gotten him wasted, and coerced him into a strange and slightly larcenous night on the town. These and subsequent adventures serve the dizzying dual purpose of showing Mewsli the time of his life and hazing him into an early grave.
So why am I so eager fall for Tiny Kitten Teeth? Just look at it. I'm a sucker for great art, and Tiny Kitten Teeth has it in spades -- or, more accurately, fleurs de lis. Dreistadt handpaints the comic with gouache then inks the images, creating a brilliant color palette, which, combined with the kitschy, 1960s aesthetic, gives the impression that Tiny Kitten Teeth is set in a très fabulous tiki party held inside Mary Blair's brain. And she doesn't sacrifice cartooning for this look, either. Her anthropomorphic characters are spot on, sort of hipster meets Hannah-Barbera, and each expresses panic or disdain or mischief or delight or self-satisfaction with a manic humor that makes each panel a sheer delight. Even if the writing were utterly without charm, Tiny Kitten Teeth would earn a slot in my reader on art alone.
And much of the writing is, in fact, quite charming. There's a great running visual gag in which characters down bottles of liquor filled with tiny ships -- making the worm a tiny, segmented sea monster -- a moment where a character wakes to find a horse head in his bed -- with the live body still attached -- and plenty of snappy, self-important dialogue. Plus, the characters have over-the-top personalities so neatly matched to their crazed -- but strangely refined -- cartoon bodies that you can practically hear the cool and withering voice actors in your head. Just about any individual page of the comic is bursting with fun, with a tight sense of voice and flair.
The trouble is in how all these individual pages fit together. Much of the plot of Tiny Kitten Teeth involves major overreactor Mewsli being jerked around by the other residents of Owltown (mostly Hootenanny). Mewsli is constantly being thrust into social situations where he doesn't understand the rules, committing faux-pas after foot-in-the-mouth, and falling for sundry pranks, only to be rescued or relieved by one of his new acquaintances before he has a complete meltdown. These incidents -- showing up for a party in the wrong attire, waking up next to an obnoxious stranger, not knowing his roommates' names, neglecting his kitty, and thinking he'll have to pay for an expensive brunch -- are too faint to hold up to the rest of the comic, and they're so easily resolved that we get the impression there's nothing at stake. The episodes either need to be punchier and more self-contained, or build on one another, getting progressively more intense and frustrating until Mewsli reaches his breaking point, stands up to the junior residents of Owltown, and make way for a whole new series of plots.
Let's face it, Tiny Kitten Teeth can get by on its good looks and personality. But if its stories can live up to the promises of its dialogue, humor, and art, it can easily step from a likable charmer to a comic to truly love.
[Tiny Kitten Teeth]
Monday, April 27, 2009
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
When I was in college, there was a store near where I lived that sold Brian Andreas' StoryPeople prints. I used to spend far too much time flipping through the bins, absorbing the bits of text and color like too many petit fours.
I get the same feeling of bite-sized fulfillment reading Juan Santapau's erratically updated comic The Secret Knots. But instead of dwelling on quirky memories or imagined conversations with alien princesses, Santapau chases down the fleeting thoughts that flit through the backs of our brains -- childish notions, invented superstitions, and half-remembered games -- and bolsters them with his wry illustrations. The results are curiously diverse: Lewis Carroll's nightmare, a fable explaining the universal hatred of mimes, a vision of spam taking over the physical world, and a woman who longs to be the next JK Rowling, but whose stories are stubbornly set in reality. Some of these comics are funny -- swift, incisive jokes; others are more poignant, tinged with shades of hopefulness or regret; still others capture the small made-up magics of daily life. The thread that connects most, though not quite all, these entries is the sense that they come from a particularly cobwebby corner of the human mind.
Two longer stories accompany the one-off comics. "The Truth Fairy," a tale of childhood friends who reconnect as adults, and "Unspeakable," a coming-of-age story inspired by an HP Lovecraft prompt, highlight the strengths and weaknesses of The Secret Knots. Santapau's artwork is lovely, but inexpressive, taking on the sheen of distant memories. It's well-suited to the persistant reflection of "Unspeakable" and the first page of "The Truth Fairy," but it also makes the later pages of the latter feel redundant. Similarly, Santapau is strongest as a writer when exploring the magical rather than the mundane. His comics about starting and ending relationships, of people sitting in bars, are fine, but they don't approach the level of originality and insight found in his meditations on imaginary friends and monsters in the closet.
Unfortunately, The Secret Knots updates irregularly and infrequently, meaning it's a comic best enjoyed in one's RSS reader. But if that's how you take your comics, it's certainly worth the subscribe.
[The Secret Knots]
Friday, April 17, 2009
Bittersweet news from Penny and Aggie this week as T Campbell announced that artist Gisele Lagace is taking permanent leave from the comic, apparently to focus on other artistic endeavors (such as her wonderful sex comedy Ménage à 3). Meanwhile, Jason Waltrip, artist for Fans! (the other source of my T Campbell obsession), will take over drawing duties.
While it's always sad to an artist leave behind the characters she helped create, I find I can't be too terribly upset about this change. Ménage à 3, a comic I've previously accused of being slow-moving and thin on plot, has picked up immensely in the last few weeks, and I greatly suspect that it's because Lagace's been giving it her fuller attention. And Waltrip has not only shown himself to be a talented artist with Fans!, he's become so adept at aping Lagace's clean style that I frequently fail to notice when he's guesting on P&A.
Some fans on the forum have welcomed Waltrip in with the hope that he'll find his own style -- as he did a bit in "Fan Glam #21" -- rather than imitating Lagace's. Normally, I'd agree, but P&A has such an enormous cast (seriously, you actually need a scorecard to keep track of them all) that a significant stylistic change would likely be distracting and confusing. And with the comic coming off the rollercoaster high of its recent string of incredibly satisfying story arcs (payoff after torturous years of buildup), I just want Campbell & Co to keep the momentum going.
[The Tea Room]
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Dash Shaw's BodyWorld came to my attention just last week when it earned one of the coveted nominations for the Digital Comic Eisner. But Shaw has been making a splash in the world of offline comics for a while now. In 2002, a 19-year-old Shaw was named one of the Small Press Expo's ten artists to watch, and his preliminary pages on his family disintegration drama Bottomless Belly Button so impressed Fantagraphics editor Gary Groth that he published the 720-page tome last June.
BodyWorld is a science fiction drama about isolation, connection, and fulfillment. After an unnamed civil war, Boney Borough is set up as a sort of eco-friendly Levittown, with couples and soldiers' widows hoping to raise their children in a wholesome post-war suburb, filled with high school sweethearts, big sporting events, and long walks through Boney Borough's expansive forests. Depressive botany professor Paul Panther takes one look at the K-12 school at the center of this apparently idyllic borough and says, with longing, "I wish I went to this school."
Paul has come to Boney Borough from New York, where he is updating a text book on hallucinogenic plants. It's precisely the only job Paul is qualified to hold, since the miserable, balding botanist is himself addicted to drugs. Paul can't seem to maintain human connection, but he's desperate for it; he meets his only friend by responding, in earnest, to spam email messages. He fills the hole in his life with various forms of self-abuse and has convinced himself that he longs to die.
A bizarre new plant has appeared in the Boney woods, and Paul has been sent to investigate its possible hallucinogenic properties. But this plant does far more than force the smoker to see pretty swirling colors. Instead, it creates a profound connection between the smoker and the people closest to him, letting him experience the other person's thoughts, memories, and even physical sensations. Soon, teacher Jem Jewel and students Pearl Peach and Billy Borg become unwitting lab rats as Paul attempts to forge a connection with them.
Of course, Boney Borough doesn't need Paul or the plant to be a science experiment. With its rigid zoning codes, fashions from some fictional corner of the 1950s, and absence of roads or cars, the whole town seems a sort of social ant farm. And, while Boney may seem, on the surface, the picture of sitcom perfection, beneath the school jerseys and argyle sweaters lurk sexual secrets, sports-related substance abuse, and an absurd level of surveillance. Ultimately, the denizens of Boney are no less vulnerable to loneliness than Paul Panther is, though most don't share his stubborn, almost self-destructive individualism. And when Boney Borough threatens to transform into the superorganism it seems to want to become, Paul has to either flee for his sense of self or let the town swallow him whole.
The characters in BodyWorld are archetypes we've seen before: the drug-addled loser who grasps at his last shreds of optimism, the sexy teacher who never really left high school, the naive girl who feels she's outgrown small-town life, the prom king jock who secretly knows he peaked long before graduation. But Shaw uses them to explore the subversive notion that we may be happiest when we surrender our individuality, our personal will to something larger than ourselves; that, left to our own devices, we will only make ourselves miserable. It's a smart and surprisingly accessible work that, despite its retro, alterna-comics look, has underpinnings of superhero comics, romance comics, and even The Twilight Zone.
It's the way Shaw blends artistic ideas that is most powerful here, poking and prodding at the language of comics to achieve his ends. Sometimes he plays it straight, using arrows and dotted lines to denote action in a way that is at once archaic and reassuringly familiar. Dead critters even get little Xs over their eyes. At other times, he radically busts the rules of traditional comicking, breaking out of his normally rigid panelling structure to allow scenes and people to overlap, and sometimes he abandons black lines entirely, filling the panels with blocks of unrestricted color. These choices make BodyWorld an interesting visual experience, but they're narrative rather than merely aesthetic.
My one issue with BodyWorld is that Shaw seems almost single-minded in the pursuit of these notions of individuality, community, microcosms, mirror neuron theory, and superorganisms. Although there are moments of texture, primarily (and appropriately) fleshing out our march-to-his-own-miserable-drummer botanist, the social science fiction lover in me longed for more details about this offbeat American future. And it's not merely a genre preference; I want some kind of anchor to this world. I want to feel chills (or at least ambivalence) at the prospect of a somewhat familiar civilization turning into something alien. But Boney Borough is a symbol pulled from a too-distant piece of Americana, making it difficult to connect to on any emotional level. This ultimately makes BodyWorld successful as an art piece, but falls short of that Twilight Zone-esque potential for being a truly chilling morality play.
Still, BodyWorld is worth at least two reads, best in quick succession -- one to take in the plot and the glorious weirdness of it all, and a second (or third) to examine how Shaw's themes play out. For print lovers, Pantheon is publishing a dead tree version in 2010 and there are rumblings of a possible film adaptation.
So, I give. I like BodyWorld and I see why it was nominated for an Eisner. But I still think comparing a self-contained work (albeit an extremely successful and intelligent one) to long-term web serials is a bit of apples and oranges.
Friday, April 10, 2009
It's rather frustrating when a character doesn't know he's stuck inside a piece of Lovecraftian fiction. You would think that the gloomy New England setting, disturbing art, indistinct chanting, and general prevalence of fish people would tip people off. And if anyone should suspect that they're in a Lovecraftian story, it should be acquaintances of the man himself, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Especially if ol' HP has recently vanished into thin air.
Orwin Battler knows a thing or two about horror. He's enjoyed some success writing stories for Weird Tales (he insists that he writes westerns, too, but they never sell) and has formed a mutual admiration society with Howard Lovecraft. Orwin leaves his native Oklahoma to visit Lovecraft in Providence (stopping in Chicago to look in on actual Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright), but upon his arrival, learns that the famed author disappeared just hours before, practically in front of his aunt's very eyes. Orwin also crosses paths with Nan Mercy, a beautiful Brown University librarian who purchases unusual and startling works for the school's special collection (which, incidentally, actually exists; trips to Brown's John Hay Library are frequently puncuated with a viewing of one of three books bound in human flesh). Miss Mercy is also interested in Lovecraft's whereabouts, suspecting that Lovecraft tore several plates out of a book recently acquired by the university. This naturally puts them both on the path to discovering deformed children, hidden cults, and immortal monsters.
Larry Latham's Lovecraft is Missing is a fond homage to Lovecraft's works. References to stories like Pickman's Model, The Horror at Red Hook, and, of course, The Call of Cthulhu abound (making the very Lovecraftian suggestion that Lovecraft was writing not from imagination but from life), and by the close of Chapter Two we've seen our first octopus-faced statuary. But Latham recognizes that you can tell a Lovecraftian tale, complete with dread, and not take yourself unbearably seriously. Instead of saddling LIM with dreary tones and florid prose, he takes a slightly cartoonish approach, using mildly absurd humor where shock might fall flat, and permitting some of his characters -- whether fighters or worshipers of evil gods -- strands of irreverent dialogue. There's still plenty of gore, unnerving pagan rituals in the midst of small towns, old men in chains, unstoppable cosmic foes, and implications of madness for Lovecraft fans, but Lovecraft's neuroses, misotheism, and racism are replaced with an understanding that many of those unspeakable horrors look a bit askew to modern audiences. Handily, this also makes Lovecraft is Missing great fun even to readers who were never particular fans of Lovecraft's work or those who couldn't tell Cthulhu from Yog-Sothoth.
Admittedly, part of my affection for Lovecraft is Missing stems from my four years in Providence, but the way Latham captures the sloped city is but a small taste of his artistic talents. His rich palette and, as I've mentioned, faintly cartoony look (a happily rough-edged pulp) may seem out of place in a Lovecraft story, but they are gorgeously easy on the eyes (and that's before we get to his wonderful shadow work) and make the monsters, madmen, and cultists feel genuinely and appropriately jarring against the rest of the deceptively wholesome world.
Lovecraft is Missing has just completed its second chapter (sadly, the third doesn't launch until May 27th), and has set up plenty of mysteries regarding the fate of Miss Mercy's parents, the nature of Orwin's seemingly all-American town, and the mystical menaces who watch their progress. And, though Latham is leading us through familiar territory, he manages to own the material in a way that adds fun to the chills. I imagine that, at some point in the story, Lovecraft will be found, but hopefully he won't prove too much of a killjoy.
[Lovecraft is Missing]
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
- Bodyworld, by Darren Shaw
- Finder, by Carla Speed McNeil
- The Lady's Murder, by Eliza Frye
- Speak No Evil: Melancholy of a Space Mexican, by Elan Trinidad
- Vs., by Alexis Sottile & Joe Infurnari
Honestly, my reaction to the Digital Comic nominees was a big fat "Buh?" With the exception of The Lady's Murder (reviewed here), none of these comics have so much as pinged my radar. And I'm not alone. This blog has a higher traffic rating than the Eisner-nominated webcomics do (which isn't saying much). I can't even get proper metrics on the hosting sites because, with the exception of Smith Magazine (which hosts Vs.), none of them see enough visitors for Quantcast to measure the traffic.
I'll grant that popular doesn't necessarily equal good, nor does obscurity indicate lack of worth; the Internet has never been a meritocracy. But given how many amazing strips there are out there that folks actually read, it seems odd that this year's Eisner nominations have gone exclusively to those with a seven-figure Alexa ranking. After all, the panel traditionally hasn't been averse to eating at the cool kids' table. In previous years, winners have included Scott Kurtz's PvP, Sam & Max: The Big Sleep (which honestly strikes me as a bit of a cheat), and Joss Whedon and Fabio Moon's Sugarshock! (which debuted in Myspace Dark Horse Presents), and previous nominees have included Girl Genius and The Abominable Charles Christopher. I'm not saying I won't give the nominees a fair chance; I'm just saying they have impressive peers to surpass.
Another issue springs to mind when looking over the nominees. If the Eisners insist on stranding webcomics in their own awards ghetto, it might be time to add a category to distinguish between long form and limited series comics. After all, pitting a continuing series against a one shot comic like The Lady's Murder is like comparing a season of television to a nine minute short; there are simply different criteria for success. In the meantime, I'm off to see if the Eisner panel's picks are really all that special.
[2009 Eisner Nominees]
Monday, April 6, 2009
Stereotypically, webcomics are chock full of talking animals, uncharacteristically friendly demons, and drunken twenty-somethings. While there's certainly nothing wrong with any of that (in fact, many of my favorite webcomics fall into one or all those categories), I'm continually impressed by the wide array of stories online that step far outside the typical webcomicky box. In just the last few weeks, we've seen Evan Dahm's surreal, multicolored meditation on destiny and free will, Dylan Meconis' hairy academic drama, and now Barry Deutsch's charming and morally complex fairy tale, Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword.
Mirka is a young girl living in the Orthodox Jewish community Aherville, a small Yiddish village of indeterminate geographic and temporal location. Far more interested in slaying monsters than learning the domestic arts, Mirka constantly shirks her knitting lessons by luring her stepmother into lengthy debates on the nature of the world. But when Mirka rescues a bona fide witch from a pair of local toughs, she's set on the path to an adventure that will require all the brands of wisdom her stepmother has to offer.
How Mirka Got Her Sword reads as a particularly smart children's book. It is laced with traditional fairytale conventions: a protagonist whose mother is deceased, a witch, a quest, a troll, a challenge, and the triumph of ingeuinity over a physically superior enemy. But there is more to it than that. Mirka takes us inside an Orthodox household in a matter-of-fact manner, peppering his dialogue with Yiddish and setting part of his story during Shabbat. Mirka's world is portrayed neither as alien, nor with the condescending appeal that we're all the same; it's just a place with its own culture and traditions.
The story also manages to be feminist without false pretensions of girl power -- and not only when it comes to our plucky protagonist. It's Mirka's stepmother Fruma who gives Mirka the tools to become a hero simply in the way she operates her daily life. She may not dream of fighting dragons, but Fruma is a fiercely intelligent domestic goddess, stern but loving, well-read, and intent on teaching her children to use their brains, to figure things out for themselves, and to reflect on the morality of their actions. Mirka may find knitting and housekeeping frightfully dull, but it's crystal clear that she could do a lot worse than grow up to be just like Fruma.
And then there's the fascinating moral dimension. We are to understand that Mirka is basically a good person, just, brave, and interested in pleasing God. But on her path to the sword, Mirka makes some morally questionable decisions -- sneaking out at night, physically threatening her brother not to alert their parents to her plans, and putting herself in harm's way. Although the story ends without resolving these issues, Deutsch doesn't simply ignore them. He acknowledges that Mirka may have triumphed over a monster, but she'll still have to pay a price for her actions. It's probably best read by kids and adults together (the book is available in dead tree format) and discussed afterward.
Deutsch promises a full Hereville graphic novel next year, including pages from Mirka and fresh material. Personally, I'd like to see a long-form Hereville series if they could all capture the simple fairytale charm of How Mirka Got Her Sword.
Saturday, April 4, 2009
In a recent installment of DAR, Erika Moen extolled the artistic efficiency of her friend and fellow cartoonist Dylan. This same stylish, bespectacled gal has made a few appearances in DAR now, and I've found myself wondering who exactly this Dylan chick is and what exactly is she doing with her superior productive powers?
Dylan, it turns out, is artist Dylan Meconis, and not only has she recently opened a show with Ms. Moen at the Sequential Art Gallery in Portland (entitled "Lady Parts"), I've actually encountered her webcomics work before. Meconis is the creator of Bite Me!, a comic about a serving wench who becomes a vampire in the midst of the French Revolution. Bite Me! is a deliberately silly affair, unpracticed but vivacious, frought with breakneck pacing, crowded dialogue, and shout-in-your-ear characterization. It evidences a writer who, while in firm need of tempering, is talented and intelligent, not to mention fantastically industrious (incidentally, the print edition of Bite Me! will be available at the Stumptown Comics Fest on April 18 and online on April 26).
But it's Meconis' current comic work, Family Man, that demonstrates her incredible chops as both an artist and a writer. A far more mature and restrained effort than Bite Me! (in fairness, a mature and restrained effort, period), Family Man is a gorgeous and immersive historical drama. Luther Levy, son of a Jewish convert, is a failed theology student living in Germany during the Age of Reason. After an incident at his university leaves him without doctoral honors, ridiculed, and alienated from his once-generous patroness, Luther slinks home, where he finds the staunch religiosity of his Lutheran family in conflict with his increasing questions about God and faith.
Just as Luther is about to resign himself to the life of a household tutor, a mere servant teaching Latin to the spoiled children of the small-town upper crust, he has a seemingly chance encounter with an alleged acquaintance, the devilishly charming Lucien de Saint-Yves. Lucien, familiar with both Luther's reputation as a scholar and his checkered university past, offers Luther an opportunity to return to academia. It's a discount version of the life Luther once dreamed of, but enough of a temptation that the usually prudent scholar agrees to trek out to the Czech-speaking middle of nowhere for the hope of a lecture position at a somewhat unorthodox university.
Meconis promises that Family Man will, like Bite Me!, contain supernatural elements (the word here is werewolves), but it certainly needs no special gimmicks to be thoroughly engrossing. Luther is a compelling character: painfully self-aware when it comes to his Jewish heritage (which is as plain as the...ahem...nose on his face), with a geeky love of logic and theological study so pure that it, at times, transcends the knowledge that it once granted him status (despite the aforementioned heritage) and and also led to his downfall. His reveries are infectious, and not just to the other characters; in Meconis' hands, we comprehend how the era's students of religion viewed their theological forebearers with the same reverence or disdain with which modern students treat Karl Marx, Noam Chomsky, and Carl Jung. Luther is also nicely bolstered by the supporting cast: Johann, Luther's twin who is physically identical to him but whose life path could not be farther apart, Lucien, whose overly friendly demeanor reeks of ulterior motives, Jakob Nolte, the university rector more interested in administration than study, and Ariana, Nolte's stern but brilliant librarian daughter -- who guards a deep secret. And where Bite Me! often jolts and careens, Family Man is tightly scripted, filled with careful characterizations and a dry wit that punches rather than shrieks. I'd happily devour 500 pages dealing with Luther's religious struggles, his interactions with Ariana and Lucien, his relationships with his students, and the internal politics of this curious school, with nary a lycanthropic curse in sight. Still, I can understand how a taste of the supernatural could neatly upset the life of a man so devoted to cold and clear logic, so I'll let Meconis pull me wherever it is she's headed.
No review of Family Man is complete without mentioning the art. Placing the Lucien and Luther in Family Man beside their Bite Me! counterparts, we can see how far Meconis has advanced as a cartoonist. It is one thing to create a convincing character who is all confidence, panic, or sobriety; it is quite another to illustrate a man like Luther, whose mood may be incrementally raised or lowered by a word of admiration or an icy critique. Meconis knows just how to make her characters glow or glower and is attentive enough to suggest notes of falsity behind bravado and softness behind unkind words. Her apparently obsessive attention to detail and use of greyscale also go a long way to making Luther's world complete. I couldn't tell you whether every window, carriage, or article of clothing is historically accurate, but they flesh out the details of the sort of world in which Luther has to live. And the monochrome both creates the impression that we are gazing back in time and adds visual dimension through the interplay of light and shadow. That Meconis plays with paneling to denote moments of duality or chaos (without overdoing it), is just gravy on the double meat sundae.
By all rights, Family Man should have been a dry dissertation on Judeo-Christian theology or a less complex tale using the Age of Reason as a superficial backdrop. But against odds, Meconis has managed to develop an intriguing protagonist whose troubles are necessarily linked to his setting and yet readily identifiable. And if werewolves tear their way past the cozy threshold of academia, all I can say is: Woof.
Friday, April 3, 2009
As committed as I am to maintaining my current level of existential despair, I can't help but geek out a bit over Edgar Wright's photographic peeks at Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The Spaced and Shaun of the Dead director is helming the movie adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's videogame-obsessed opus about an underachieving twentysomething who, in order to nab the girl of his dreams, has to vanquish her seven evil exes. Compressing the entire six book series into a feature-length film may sound like a daunting task, but judging from the most recent photos posted on Wright's website, he's got a firm grip on the spirit of the Scott Pilgrim universe. For now, we have to settle for stand-ins in lieu of the actual actors (though methinks I spot a very blurry Kim Pine), but the set dressing and the pallette feel spot-on, right down the Lame Brand amps and the dirty dishes in the sink.
Not only am I way more psyched about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I can't wait to see Wright join forces with Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat for the Tintin screenplay.
[Edgar Wright Here via Twitch]
[Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim Photostream]
Thursday, April 2, 2009
I was a little surprised when I got my copy of Box Brown's Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing. I've long been a fan of Brown's webcomic Bellen! (previously reviewed here) and I expected to see my favorite round-headed lovebirds Ben and Ellen gracing the cover. Instead, the front of Love features Ben, the male half of the fictional couple, and then Ben again, an arrow pointing from one Ben to the other. Why is been on the cover twice, I wondered. And where is Ellen?
As it turns out, Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing is not precisely a Bellen! book. Rather, it functions as a companion to Bellen! in much the way the film American Splendor works as companion to Harvey Pekar's comics. We open with "New City Stroll," a wonderfully satisfying Ben and Ellen story that is exactly what I'd hoped to see from a longer-form Box Brown comic. Having just moved in together, our couple takes a stroll through Philadelphia and has small adventures while Ben contemplates whether he likes his new city. It's a perfect little nugget of Bellen! goodness, the kind of story that reminds us how fascinating the mundane can be and how we're often sweet and sour in a single breath. Then we cut immediately to Box Brown himself as he briefly explains, as if being interviewed for the Bellen! documentary, the relationship between his boozy depressed self and his nearly physically identical proxy Ben.
From there, Love becomes much more meditative, exploring the vast territories of loneliness, companionship (and the things we try to substitute for companionship), and coping with thoughts of aging and death. There are still those celebrations of the private, silly moments couples in love share (notably "Mundane Magic") and parsing the nature of love (the all too true title story). But most of the stories focus primarily on Ben or Brown himself.
In Bellen!, Ben has been a sort of everyman for the young, educated, agnostic set, but in Love, he suddenly gets a personal history. He has a sister. He's a child of divorce. There are definable girls before Ellen rather than the implication of earlier failed relationships. Bellen! has always been slightly more about Ben than Ellen, but with Ben taking center stage, it might be tempting to regard Ellen as a mere appendage (and in one story, Ben even likens meeting Ellen to growing another limb). But contrasting stories like "The Life of Ben" -- which portrays Ben's entire life as leading up to his eventual meeting with Ellen -- and "We Were Morons Once" -- perhaps the most visually striking story, which plays with the similar framing of comic panels and yearbook photos to explore the way we replay and share our memories -- with the interludes about Box Brown's own anxieties over isolation, art, and leading an authentic life without regrets, she becomes something more. She becomes the symbol of an aspirational life, a life where we still have our neuroses and our fears, but we are loved for them, and have something reassuring to cling to even in an unfair, war-torn, and ignorance-filled world. With Ellen, Ben is still Box Brown in many ways, but he is groping and growing beside someone who anchors him, calls him out on his shit, and lets him sometimes forget about his troubles and simply enjoy life.
It's little surprise, then, that the sole cracks in this otherwise solid text appear where Brown steps out of his earnest search for meaning and presumes he (or Ben) has any kind of answers. In "Your Sins Will Be White as Snow," Ben develops a perverse obsession with Chick tracts and the well-meaning evangelist who foists them on passers-by. Although it's filled with some wonderfully identifiable moments of internal conflict (I remember being quite excited myself the first time I got handed a real-life Chick tract -- I'd always thought people who enjoyed them unironically were a bit of a myth -- then feeling too guilty to actually keep the thing on my person), it ends on a disappointingly jokey note that's too slight and too cynical for the normally thoughtful Brown. Similarly, the final story, "Standing Like Curious Children," offers some morsels of stunning insight (having recently lost someone very close to me, the idea of loved ones as appendages hits painfully close to home). But a much older Ben reflecting on his life -- and impending death -- proves uncomfortably didactic and loses the unvarnished honesty that generally suffuses Brown's work.
These minor issues, though, do little to detract from the overall success of Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing. It manages to be an intensely personal work that invites us to reflect upon our own lives rather than make judgments on Brown's. It assures us not only that we are not alone in our discontentment, our impatience, our pretensions, and our moments of existential panic, but also that there are people out in the world who will love us exactly for our crazy selves.
Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing was published with a Xeric Grant and hits stores June 3.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
On April 1st, no RSS feed is safe. Reddit looks like Digg threw up on it. Drew Curtis pulls a Zuckerberg with "The New Fark Experience" (to be rolled out April 2nd, naturally). Think Geek is selling unicorn chasers, USB pet rocks, and interactive Portal shirts (although now I really want a Tauntaun sleeping bag). Google's AI CADIE has become self-aware, discovered pandas, and now wants to answer your Gmail for you. Expedia's offering deals on flights to Mars. Today's Zero Punctuation was sponsored by Pony Jam. And there will be no shortage of fake articles, upside down logos, and Rickrolls.
Strangely, after last year's grand xkcd-Questionable Content-Dinosaur Comics URL switcheroo, very few webcomickers have taken part in today's slightly annoying festivities:
- Amazing Superpowers goes Web 1.0 for the day, taking us back to 1996 with a space-themed background, animated GIFs, a MIDI (thankfully not on autoplay), and a series of game sprite comics.
- At Overcompensating, Jeffrey Rowland announces that he's sold his webcomic merch company TopatoCo to Snorg Tees, and gives us a taste of the fruit the unholy union will bear.
- HijiNKS Ensue replays Ctrl+Alt+Del's infamous miscarriage scene with Joel and Josh in the starring roles.
- Wondermark gets a new a style that looks suspiciously like Tony Millionaire's Maakies.
- David Willis announces that he's ending Shortpacked! in favor of a Roomies! reboot.
- Today's Dinosaur Comics isn't an April Fool's joke, because T-Rex has had it up to here with April Fool's jokes.