Tag Archives: comics

Brian K Vaughan’s Paper Girls Books 1 and 2

Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, Paper Girls, Volume 1 and Volume 2 (Image 2016)

Yet another comic series from the brilliant and prolific Brian K Vaughan, co-creator of Y: The Last Man and Saga. This time, working with an all-male team (Cliff Chiang on pencils, Matt Wilson colorist and Jared K Fletcher as distinctive letterer), he gives us lead characters who are all female: twelve-year-old girls who deliver newspapers in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.

No sooner are the four bike-riding heroines introduced, doing their rounds early on the morning after Halloween in 1988, than weird, deadly dangerous things start to happen. It’s like a female Goonies or Stranger Things, only even more incident-packed and – at least at first – explanation-light. The word that came to mind as the first volume’s action progresses, complete with weird time-machines (note the plural) and pterodactyl-riding robots (I think), is ‘bonkers’, but in a good way. The second volume’s carnivorous grubs the size of four-story buildings don’t do much to restore equilibrium.

1632158957By the end of the second volume, most of the weirdness has at least a broadbrush explanation, but I have no idea what will happen next, or why these four girls are so important to the participants in the massive multi-generational multi-time-period battle that rages around them.

Any confusion doesn’t come from muddle in the artwork, which is wonderfully clear,  or for that matter in the story-telling. The teasing is deliberate. The girls are caught up in a hugely complex conflict. We are ahead of them in a couple of details – we recognise the Apple logo on an artefact dropped by an ‘alien’, for instance, and likewise a ‘Hillary for President’ poster seen on their visit to 2016 – but mostly we’re plunged into the action with hardly any more perspective than they have. For them of course it’s life and death. For us it’s fun.

Jason Aaron & Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards

Jason Aaron & Jason Latour, Southern Bastards: Volume 1: Here Was a Man (2014) and Volume 2: Gridiron (2015)

1632150166_b.jpg163215269X.jpgThe first two volumes of this Eisner winning series are a gift from a son who has been an excellent gift-giver since he was very young.

Without detract from the excellence of the gift, or indeed of the series, I have to say they’re not my cup of tea. They tell interlocking hyper-macho stories of sons dealing with violent legacies from their  fathers in a small southern US town, one a hyper-violent sheriff, the other a no less violent fringe-dwelling criminal.

The art is powerful, but generally murky – and though there is one poorly registered image the murkiness isn’t something that can be laid at the printer’s door. In the frequent passages of violence, everything turns red, as in the covers above, a deeply unpleasant effect, and the drawing style, appropriate though it is to the subject, is crude and, well, repellent.

The first volume (issues 1–8 of the original comic) has a story line very like the movie The Judge: a son returns to Southern home after long absence and is reconciled with his father  – though in this case the father is long dead, and the reconciliation takes the form of the son becoming a spectacularly violent vigilante. The second is like the vicious underbelly of Saturday Night Lights: the murderous college football coach is held in very high esteem so long as the team keeps winning.

In forewords to the first volume, the creators (Jason Aaron writer and Jason Latour artist, I think) acknowledge their Southern roots, and their love–hate–fear relationships with the South. The hate and fear are a lot more apparent than the love. The foreword to the second volume is written by a US football player and is largely incomprehensible to me.

The final images of the second volume hold out hopes that things will be different in Volume 3. A young African-American woman soldier is returning home from Afghanistan. Does this prefigure a departure from the ugly-masculine mode of the first two volumes? Or will the violence continue, now with added boobs? I don’t plan on finding out.

Vaughan & Guerra’s Y: The Last Man Books 3–5 and my November Verse 13

Brian K Vaughan & Pia Guerra, Y: The Last Man Book 3 (2004, 2005, this edition 2010)
—, Y: The Last Man Book 4 (2005, 2006, this edition 2010)
—, Y: The Last Man Book 5 (2006–2008, this edition 2011)

Previously in Y: Yorick, a 23 year old New Yorker escape artist, and Ampersand, a trainee-companion monkey, are the only two male mammals on earth to have survived a mysterious plague. They have teamed up with the woman known only as 355, who is a member of the Culper Ring, a mysterious organisation, and Dr Alison Mann, who has ben experimenting with clone technology and so has a good chance of ensuring a future for humankind. Dr Mann’s New York lab is blown up by Israeli operatives, and the three of them travel across the US to her West Coast lab where her back-up data is safe, encountering an assortment of female post-apocalyptic enemies and allies: the Israelis, a Russian operative, survivalists, escaped convicts making a new life, an astronaut, paranoid cowgirls. Yorick’s sister, Hero, has meanwhile joined a group of neo-Amazons who are fanatically and violently determined to erase all vestiges of the patriarchy. And Yorick has a personal mission, to meet up with his girlfriend Beth, who was in Australian when the plague hit and has since been out of contact.

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The adventure continues in Book 3 with plenty of violence, and a modicum of sex. It turns out that the Australian navy had women active in submarines where the US did not. As a result a fully armed and dangerous Collins Class sub intercepts the ship taking our little band across the Pacific. Australia also comes to the fore as we get some of Beth’s story. There’s some deeply worrisome representations of Warlpiri culture (though you have to give Brian Vaughan credit for actually naming a people rather than giving us generic mystical ‘Aborigines’ like the ones in Werner Herzog’s Green Ant Dreaming).

Goran Sudžuka joins Pia Guerra in the pencilling, and to my untrained eye the seams are invisible.

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In Book 4, Yorick, Dr Mann and agent 335 reach Australia, which isn’t a happy place, though there’s plenty of amusing US attempts at Australian slang, and some cheerful sex and one bit of comic full frontal male nudity (poor Yorick is drawn looking all heroic on the covers, but doesn’t fare so well in the actual stories).

We also get the back stories of a number of characters, and lectures on the status of women that in any other context might be tediously didactic, but here have a certain charm. For example, there’s a key plot point when two capuchin monkeys escape from their cages in an airport. This is how we see it:

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And the reader responds by secretly cheering for the ‘gendercide’ that is to come. Similar moments, such as a short debate about whether the mistreatment of women in the Catholic Church was perpetrated solely by men, or whether women might have been pretty bad as well, turn out to be important to the plot.

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Then in Book 5 it all comes together – or apart, depending on your point of view. Yorick finds Beth and their reunion turns out pretty much as the discerning reader might have expected. There’s another romance that also turns out pretty much as expected, though in a way that surprised and, yes, shocked me. In fact, the working out of all the plot strands is almost at the level of Shakespearean comedy. Of the many hypotheses that have been floated about the cause of the catastrophe, the one that is finally given may not be realistic but it fits the world of the story better than any other: at least grounds have been laid for it.

It all ends happily for the human race, though almost literally up in the air for Yorick himself.

One more note: It seems to me that a successful comic series has to have a certain amount of sex and violence. Y does that. It also manages to be witty, literate and occasionally instructive. Yorick and his sister Hero were named after Shakespearean characters by their nerdy parents. When it seems one woman is going to have to spend time in hospital, Yorick draws up a reading list for her – Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is at the top of the list. It’s similarly refreshing that one of the characters becomes President in the final pages but not, it turns out, of the USA: in this US comic, other countries exist.

And let me burst into verse, for the second last time this November. Extra points for readers who spot the Bill Haley reference.

November Verse 13: On Reading Y: The Last Man
Alas poor Yorick, last man standing!
Two male mammals left alive
on earth, just him and Ampersand, an
ape, his kind-of pet. These five
thick comic books by Vaughan and Guerra,
amuse and tease, prompt pity, terror.
A single man left on the ground,
three billion women all around.
But here’s no superhero fiction,
no Bacchanal or things more blue,
no Warhol shooter’s dream come true,
no earnest SF clone prediction,
just good fun: the men are dead,
that’s sad, but what a watershed!

Saga 6 & November Verse 6

Fiona Staples (artist) and Brian K Vaughan (writer), Saga Volume Six (Image Comics 2016)

163215711X.jpgThe continuing adventures of bi-speci-al Hazel and her family.

Hazel is now in kindergarten in prison, with her wings bound so she can pass as a purebred member of her father’s horned species. Her parents are reunited and searching for her. Her grandmother is taking to prison life with gusto, getting tattooed and making friends. The cute but lethal Ghüs and Friendo are protecting the exiled former Prince and his little son. The Will is hallucinating and out to avenge his arachnid lover’s death.

There are a pair of web-footed closet gay journalists, Petrichor the glamorous horned trans woman prisoner, and innumerable extras.

Vaughan and Staples spin a great yarn, and the series benefits from being the work of a single artist. We don’t have to constantly adjust to different renditions of the characters, and can enjoy small felicities such as the sense that furry little Ghüs has wandered in out of a different comic.

The sex and violence continues to put the series in the Adults-Only category, though the nudity and sex scenes are a lot less grotesque and more joyful  than in previous instalments. It’s painful to think it’s likely to be a year before Volume 7 arrives.

And because it’s November here’s a little verse (with a link to information on Fredrick Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, which made alarming assertions about the dangers of comics in 1954):

November Verse 6: On a frame from Chapter 32 of Staples and Vaughan’s Saga
Ghost Who Walks, friend of Bandar,
pirates’ foe, Diana’s love,
some say racist propaganda:
back then I treasured you above
all other comics. I was seven
when a nun intent on heaven
and panicked by Fred Wertham’s book,
took my Phantom ‘for a look’.
She gave it back a full week later
embarrassed that she couldn’t tell
how it might pave my way to hell.
Her ghost today might well berate her
younger self. She would not bless
this bare post-coital tenderness.

Vaughan & Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man Book 2

Brian K Vaughan & Pia Guerra, Y: The Last Man, Book 2 (2003, 2004, this Deluxe Edition 2009)

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In Book 1, all mammals with a Y chromosome except two died in a mysterious plague. We were introduced to the two survivors, Yorick Brown and his companion monkey Ampersand; their nemesis, Yorick’s younger sister Hero; their protector, a secret organisation operative named 355; and Dr  Mann (get it?) who seems to be the world’s best chance of understanding the plague and securing a future for humanity.

At the end of Book 1, our main characters had set off from New York to San Francisco, to Dr Mann’s backed up research, her main lab having been torched by Israeli soldiers. And on its last page we had glimpsed a trio of astronauts, two male and one female, who are about to return to earth.

Book 2 is the equivalent of a road movie. As in all good road movies, we learn a lot more about our three main characters: 355’s organisation comes slightly more clearly into view; Dr Mann may not be the great scientist she’s cracked up to be; and young Yorick reveals depths and vulnerabilities, that is to say he becomes more interesting. The astronauts land, with predictable and unpredictable results. The Israeli soldiers become a serious problem. There’s a paranoid states-rights militia, a group of travelling players, a shadowy ninja-like character who seems to be working for the government, pistol-toting cowgirls, a kick-ass Russian agent, a tragic dominatrix (or is she?), and a host of interesting single-page characters.  There’s plenty of violence and PG sex, though (possible spoiler) Yorick manages to remain faithful to his girlfriend who is still in Australia.

The story zings along. Yorick’s major in English Literature allows literary references to be pulled off: a bizarre form of therapy, we are told, was developed in a secret meeting between Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Sade (Brian K Vaughan’s invention, I think); Mary Shelley wrote a novel called The Last Man set in the 21st century (true); there’s explicit homage to Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. Pia Guerra does most of the pencilling but is joined in this issue by Goran Parlov for three  of the original 13 issues and Paul Chadwick for two – for a non-expert reader like me the transitions are seamless.

I read this on an evening when I had intended to go to the movies. Nothing I wanted to see was on at a convenient time, so I hopped on a bus, got to Kinokuniya just as it was closing, and read this pretty much in the time a movie would have taken and with at least as much enjoyment.

Just as I was about to hit Publish I read on the jacket-flap what purports to be a summary of Y‘s set-up but is in fact a statement of just how male-dominated the world is at the start of the 21st century. As a result of the mysterious plague, ‘495 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are now dead, as are 99% of the world’s landowners … Worldwide, 85% of all government representatives are now dead … as are 100% of Catholic priests, Muslim imams, and Orthodox Jewish rabbis’. The book is fun, but it’s having its fun in a seriously fraught place.

Vaughan & Guerra’s Y: The Last Man Book 1

Brian K Vaughan & Pia Guerra, Y: The Last Man Book 1 (2002, 2003, this Deluxe Edition 2008)

1401219217.jpgMy younger son and I are enjoying Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ space opera romance comic, Saga, as it appears book by book. So Y: The Last Man, written by Vaughan in an earlier collaboration with artist Pia Guerra, was an excellent gift from him to me on a recent birthday.

All the men on earth, indeed all mammals with a Y chromosome, die suddenly, cause unknown. In the grief-stricken chaos that ensues, the highways of the USA are choked with crashed vehicles and the great majority of society’s institutions screech to a halt. Suddenly it’s a post-apocalyptic landscape. But wait, there is an unexplained exception to the equally unexplained die-off: Yorick, a 22 year old amateur escape artist and his pet monkey are still alive. Yorick has two goals: to get to Australia to rejoin the woman he hopes is his fiancee (the proposal phone call was inconclusive); and to do what his mother wants and help restore humanity – no, not by going on a reproductive marathon, but by finding a woman known to be an expert in cloning and working with her.

It’s slightly silly, but mostly played with a straight face as Yorick confronts gun-toting widows of Republican congressmen who believe they are entitled to their dead husbands’ seats, a fanatical Amazonian sect who are determined to finish what Mother Earth has started and exterminate Yorick, the escaped inmates of a women’s prison who have established a self-sufficient village, and sundry other outlaws, scroungers, allies and protectors.

This book is the first of five – I expect to be reporting on the remaining four in the fulness of time.

 

 

 

 

 

Lee Whitmore’s Ada Louise

Lee Whitmore, Ada Louise: A life imagined (Susan Lane Studio 2016)

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The host of a Radio National books program regularly disparages family histories. ‘We’re just not interested,’ he says. But he’s wrong. Not because all or even most family histories are gems, but because Sturgeon’s revelation –’Ninety percent of everything is crap’ – is as valid here as it is for comics or science fiction. It’s just wrong to disparage a whole genre on the basis of even a large number of poor examples.

Ada Louise isn’t just a family history, it’s also a comic, so it also belongs to a medium often targeted by literary snobbishness. Come to think of it, it’s in a third outsider category as well: it’s self-published. At least, I can’t find any reference to Susan Lane Studio on the internet. The copy I read belongs to a friend, and is number 65 of a limited edition of 100 copies.

The good news is that Ada Louise is definitely in the non-crap ten percent of all three categories.

When Lee Whitmore was about eight years old her maternal grandmother came to live with her family. The grandmother – Ada Louise – was very old and frail and not at all interested in the children. ‘Very occasionally there was a glint of amusement in her eyes,’ an introduction tells us, ‘but mostly she just looked wistful, even sad.’ In what Whitmore’s website describes as a ‘loose series of episodic moments strung together on a time line’ the book sets out to answer the questions that puzzled the young girl: ‘What was it that had made my grandmother this way? What had happened in her life?’

We first see Ada Louise as a tiny figure in a two-page drawing of ‘British settlement Invercargill’, New Zealand in 1885. A speech bubble in the bottom right corner of the townscape reads, ‘Hurry home, Ada,’ and on the next spread the fourteen year old Ada runs with her violin case through a windy yard towards her front door. In the following pages she is absorbed into the cheerful chaos of her many-sistered life, and in the course of the book’s nearly 600 page s her story emerges in a discontinuous way that creates a sense that these are family stories, legends almost, rendered into a coherent whole.

We follow Ada’s fortunes and those of her sisters as they mature, marry, become variously rich and poor and have children of their own. These affectionately realised characters deal with scandal, frustrated ambition, betrayal, heartbreak and almost Shakespearean restoration. There’s also some Micawberish comedy.

The book’s seven chapters follow Ada and her family from New Zealand to Melbourne (when she is 30, in 1901), to Sydney six years later. The cities and suburbs of the action are lovingly created: a church in Darlinghurst, a Prahran mansion, inner-city Sydney streetscapes, Flinders Street Station,Waverley Cemetery; trams, trains, early cars, and the ocean in its many moods.There are cucumber sandwiches, family singsongs around the piano

The comics medium is beautifully suited to this project. From the family tree at the beginning to the hand-lettered postscript, Whitmore is intimately present, not just in her words, but in the movements of her hand recorded in the richly crosshatched charcoal drawings. You can see examples on her website. Here’s the spread introducing Chapter 2:

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Ada Louise is the tenth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Chris Ware’s Building Stories

Chris Ware, Building Stories (Jonathan Cape 2012)

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This is a book that comes as 17 or so separate pieces in a box: little books, bigger books, concertina-folded strips, a board …  It might seem just plain gimmicky at first blush. But no. It turns out to be completely captivating.

The title is a pun: to read this book you have to build its stories, and a good deal of it is tales from a three-story building. Because of the nature of the beast, every reader will encounter the stories in a different sequence. Either I was very lucky, or the sizes and heft of the components tend to guide the reader’s choices, but I felt that I was reading a discontinuous but coherent narrative.

The book I read has five narrative threads, each with a central character: the lonely woman with a partially amputated leg who lives on the top level of an old building in inner Chicago; the unhappily married couple on the floor below her; the old woman who owns the building, and who lives on the ground floor where she has lived her whole life; a bee who is briefly trapped in the house; and the house itself. These stories connect and separate the way the lives of people who live in an apartment building do. Eventually, one of the stories emerges as the central one and the others slip away.  (I imagine that if you read in a different sequence, the life after the building – which to me was a long aftermath – will seem like the main story, with the life in the building as flashback.)

It’s not exactly a cheery read: most of the characters spend most of their time sad, lonely, bored, and generally dissatisfied. Youthful ambitions fail to materialise, youthful mistakes come back to haunt. But the telling is miraculous. Really. Once I got over my initial reluctance to engage with this box of stuff, I was completely gripped. The ending, or rather my ending, is devastating but not as nihilistic as I had feared. Chris Ware’s art is precise and spare to the point of primness, yet communicates meaning through the slightest variation – a flower stem bends slightly from one frame to the next, a facial expression changes subtly. Here’s a sample page, though I don’t know how much you can tell from it. It’s part of a day at work for the woman from the top floor, an aspiring writer and artist who works in a florist’s shop:

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A note on terminology: Generally I dislike the term ‘graphic novel’ because it seems to me to be little more than a way not to call comics ‘comics’. But it’s hard to call Building Stories a comic, because it’s not a comedy by a long shot. I don’t know, call this a grown-up picture book in a box (‘grown-up’ rather than ‘adult’, because although there’s nudity and some sexual activity, including among the bees, there’s nothing particularly erotic about it).

 

Lumberjanes

Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, Brooke Allen and others Lumberjanes: To the Max edition Volume 1 (BOOM! Box 2015)

1608868095This was a generous birthday gift from a son. It’s a hefty and handsome hardback which collects eight original monthly comics, presented as the tenth edition (February 1984) of the field manual for the Lumberjanes advanced program, the Lumberjanes being a fictional version of the Girl Scouts (which I think is the US version of the Guides). The graphic adventures of five girls disrupt the manual’s practical instructions and moral exhortations. They don’t undermine its ethos, but go off on bizarre, anarchic adventures to earn their badges and save the day.

I’m definitely not part of the target audience for this one, being neither USian, nor female nor tween. I do like the central idea, as foreshadowed on the false title page where the ‘Girls’ in the phrase ‘Camp for Girls’ has been blacked out and replaced with a hand-printed ‘HARDCORE LADY-TYPES’. But the graphic style (mostly by Brooke Allen, with garish colours by Maarta Laiho) is too anarchic for my taste and the stories (mostly written by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis) of spells, anagram clues, underground animated statues, zombie boys, dinosaurs and so on left me pretty unengaged, even when I could decipher what exactly was happening. I did enjoy the way any number of feminist icons (‘Holy bell hooks!’, for example, or ‘Oh my Bessie Coleman!’) are invoked in moments of high emotion.

Horses for courses. There aren’t too many 12 year old girls who would enjoy the books I do. So I’m not knocking this.

Ed Brubaker’s Fatale

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, with colours by Dave Stewart, Fatale Book 1: Death Chases Me (Image 2012)

9781607065630.jpgI enjoyed Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ The Fade Out immensely, so when I saw that this book of theirs was part of the ridiculously expensive pile of comics that one of my sons gave me as a birthday present (not so ridiculous, of course, when you realise that he would read them after me), I was pleased.

It’s a detective yarn combined with a Lovecraftian horror story. The telling is satisfyingly complex, shifting back and forth between two time periods and only gradually revealing the nature of the dilemmas facing the the lead characters, but laying out enough hints that when things take a turn for the bizarre there’s a sense of continuity. The artwork is consistently dramatic and serves the story well. Sex scenes are relatively tactful. Gore is over the top without being too realistic and the worst atrocity remains unseen by the reader. This is the first of five volumes (consisting of the first 5 of 24 comics), and does a great job of setting up the story, rounding out its own arc, and signalling a number of clear questions yet to be answered.

But my response was pretty meh. I guess horror’s just not my thing. The poet Martin Johnston once said that Lovecraft was a terrible writer but he gave you great nightmares. Sadly, I don’t expect even the nightmares from this.