I have always been a sucker for post-apocalyptic stories, and Just a Pilgrim by Garth Ennis fits that bill. It was originally released as a five-issue miniseries by Black Bull in 2001, but you can get the complete trade paperback now. Ennis, of Preacher and Punisher fame, combines a bunch of off-kilter ideas and character traits in this story, which makes the comic interesting, but strangely enough, also keeps it from being anything other than an amusing oddity.
The story takes place after a solar event called “the burn.” The burn scorches the Earth, destroys all plant life, and evaporates all the water. Apparently, the radiation also created some monsters. The setting is a quirky mix of an Eastwood spaghetti western and The Road Warrior. Pilgrim is Eastwood, kinda.
Just a Pilgrim
We are never given his name, other than Pilgrim. He’s an anti-hero that the reader can never quite be sure about, especially at the end. In typical Ennis fashion, Pilgrim is a religious fundamentalist with a wicked past and a penchant for grotesque violence, while quoting scripture. He assists a group of people traveling through the wasteland of the Atlantic seabed. They’re trying to find a rumored outpost where people can live in relative safety. On the way, a band of barbarians, with a leader who is the stereotypical pirate, becomes determined to kill, rape, and pillage the group. A young boy with the traveling group, Billy Shepherd, documents the trip in his diary. It’s high adventure on the dried up seas.
Some of the details just feel like they were meant to be shocking for the sake of being shocking. Pilgrim’s character is interesting. Is he a hero? An anti-hero? A villain? But the religious twist just feels like Ennis is taking unfair jabs at people of faith. Overall, Just a Pilgrim is a quick, easy read with post-apocalyptic flair and adventure, but there’s not much weight to it.
Top Shelf Productions published a remastered version of Jeff Lemire’s Lost Dogs in June 2012. Chris Ross re-lettered the book and helped Lemire repackage it. This is a powerful short story of a graphic novel using three colors and a brush.
Timothy Callahan reflects in his introduction on the first time he saw the Lost Dogs at a comic show. He walked away without buying it. He writes:
And before long, I returned. The glimpses of imagery haunted me through the rest of the day at the MoCCA art festival. Before I left for home, I stopped at Lemire’s booth and bought a copy of Lost Dogs, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made (at a comic book show, at least).
That’s the kind of book Lost Dogs is. It’s haunting, and it sticks with you. If you’re familiar with Lemire’s work, you will not be disappointed. Lost Dogs is his first work, and he is finding his style and voice. You’ll see how his work has evolved and become more refined without losing any of the power or rawness.
Less is More
I came to the book from Lemire’s most recent graphic novel, The Underwater Welder. The artwork in Lost Dogs is certainly rawer, but the power of the story and even some underlying themes remain the same. The book has Lemire’s signature full page panels that stun you with their ability to capture crucial story elements. I just linger on those pages. And the text is kept to the bare essentials. Not one word is unnecessary.
Bare-knuckle Fist Fight
Callahan’s introduction really captures the work well:
Lost Dogs is rough, it is raw as hell, but it’s rough like a bareknuckle fist fight and raw like a rusty knife into your gut. Lemire’s artistic style has tightened up since he first worked on this book, but the grammar, the fundamental storytelling elements, remain the same as what you might see in the Essex County comics, or in his work for Vertigo. He’s a true cartoonist, in the sense that his words and his pictures flow from the same source.
If you’re a Jeff Lemire fan, do yourself a favor and pick this up. You’ll read it through it one sitting and then want to read it again.
I’m a latecomer to Doctor Who. My 11-year-old son turned me on to the television series a few months ago, and we have been steadily making our way through the Netflix collection. When I saw Doctor Who: The Dave Gibbons Collection, I couldn’t pass it up. I mean Dave Gibbons, artist of Watchmen and Superman: “For the Man Who Has Everything,” and Doctor Who together in comics? How could you go wrong?
Since I’m no expert, my insight into how these stories relate to older episodes of the series will be admittedly limited. The collection mainly focuses on the Tom Baker incarnation of the Doctor, with a few stories towards the end that include the Peter Davison incarnation, including one of my favorites in the collection “The Tides of Time.” Sharon and K-9 are the Doctor’s companions for several stories, but most of the time he travels alone in these stories and meets people along the way.
Naturally, Dave Gibbons’ artwork lives up to his reputation. The colors and detail are superb throughout the collection. From what I can tell, he captured Tom Baker’s manic grin and personality perfectly, but I’m going on very limited knowledge of Baker. Gibbons’ vision of creatures, space vehicles, and intergalactic communities completely drew me into the stories.
The book opens with several multi-part stories that I really enjoyed- “The Iron Legion,” “The City of the Damned,” and “The Star Beast.” “The City of the Damned,” which has Orwellian themes, is probably my favorite of the collection. The citizens of the city are controlled and programmed to be emotionless, but there is a gang of rebels, who each exhibit one emotion, fighting the controllers. There is a quirky ending befitting the Doctor.
“The Tides of Time” runs a close second. It shows a side of the Doctor I haven’t seen in the latest seasons of the television series. There are massive powers at play in the universe. The Doctor is mainly along for the ride and is just as confused as everyone else. The story takes some really bizarre turns, but is visually stunning.
There are several other stories in the collection where the Doctor seems to just be along for the ride without contributing much, but they are one-off, quick stories that seem to end as soon as they really begin. There also seems to be a lot more Star-Wars-like space battles and lasers in these older stories, but that may be natural in the older stories and incarnations of the Doctor.
Overall, the collection is just as compelling as the television series. Anyone who is a fan of the show and likes comics will certainly enjoy this book. Check it out here.
Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder is a powerful example of how comics can be just as artistic, important, and poignant as traditional literature. The story follows Jack, an underwater welder for an oil rig. Jack and his wife are expecting their first child, but Jack is struggling with issues from his own childhood. How can you be a father when you have deep issues with your own dad?
Jack feels an overwhelming need to be alone. The only place he can find the peace and quiet to deal with his thoughts is underwater welding at work. The story takes some surreal and unexpected turns as Jack deals with his past. Ultimately, he tries to answer that nagging human question, “Who am I?” In the introduction to the book, Damon Lindelof describes it as “the most spectacular episode of the Twilight Zone that was never produced.” That describes the book perfectly.
Lemire’s art is simplistic and raw, which really captures the isolation in the story and Jack’s state of mind. Lemire uses large panels liberally with minimal text, which also highlights the internal contemplative aspects of the story. I had an English professor who said that in good literature everything is there for a purpose. Nothing is superfluous. The craftsmanship and vision displayed in The Underwater Welder is the perfect combination of writing and art to create a powerful story. It is good literature.
I highly recommend The Underwater Welder. The book is over 200 pages, but reads very quickly. And then you will want to read it again to figure out how Lemire captured so much story and emotion with black and white simplicity and sparse text. He crafted something special.
I seriously doubt there will be a better graphic novel released in 2012. Top Shelf Productions publishes The Underwater Welder. Check it out here.
I was turned on to Jeff Smith’s RASL by The Best American Comics of 2011. RASL is much different than Smith’s famous masterpiece, Bone. Where Bone is a epic lighthearted fantasy adventure, RASL is a dark and gritty sci fi noir. RASL, the main character, is a hard drinking art thief with a mysterious past. His girlfriend is a prostitute, but he has another girl’s name tattooed on his arm. There’s time jumping, a history lesson on Tesla, a government conspiracy, and a bad guy who looks like a lizard (think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) chasing RASL across parallel timelines. Of course, RASL is not his original name, and I’ve yet to figure out what it means.
The overriding theme is the need to make things right with the past, but the harder RASL tries the higher the cost to himself. There is some Native American imagery regarding life being a maze, and the time jumping lends to the theme. There is the recurring image of a pebble being dropped in water and the resultant ripples. It reads like a blend of Raymond Chandler, Hunter S. Thompson, and LOST. Good, dark fun all around.
The series is steeped in mystery, and Smith is a master of cliffhangers. I don’t want to give away much of the plot because the mystery of it all is what drives the series. Rumors are circulating on the interwebs that the series will come to an explosive conclusion in 2012 or 2013. Issues 1-11 have been collected in three volumes. You can check out the hardcover volume here.
Like most people these days, I came to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Philip K. Dick through Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner. I knew the film was based on the book and always had it on my to-be-read list, but that list grows faster than I keep up with it. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep kept its spot as other books piled on. Then I stumbled onto this comic adaptation by Tony Parker and BOOM! Studios. It’s word for word from the book with panel-to-panel continuity. I couldn’t resist.
If you like Blade Runner, you really owe it to yourself to read the book or comic. Both the film and novel are excellent, but they are really two different animals (pun intended). The film is very character driven and its thematic focus is very narrow. It’s good, but it’s narrow. The novel is idea driven and is much more complex than the film. Philip K. Dick was as much philosopher as storyteller. There are some crucial scenes and ideas in the novel that make it superior to the film, because they add so much more depth and meaning to the story.
For example, one crucial element in the novel is Mercerism, a religion that uses technology to give people a sense of connectedness. People can plug in and feel connected physically and spiritually to Mercer (and all humanity as a result) as he eternally struggles up his hill, like Sisyphus. As his invisible persecutors throw rocks at him, everyone connected feels the pain. They actually bruise and bleed. This is a human need that androids do not understand. The film doesn’t have enough time to develop this idea, and it is too far removed from Dekker’s primary mission.
The Mercer idea also leads to Buster Friendly, a media personality constantly broadcasting on TV and radio. Everyone loves him. Everyone watches. He has a cast of silly characters that join him similar to variety show and late night TV. The idea of Mercerism and Buster Friendly are just two examples of Philip K. Dick’s prescience. They also contribute to the development of Deckard’s character and the difference between humans and androids.
I’m not sure if the comic adaptation now constitutes a third animal in addition to the film and traditional novel. It includes everything in the novel, and readers who know the film will recognize elements of it in the comic as well. Tony Parker’s illustrations are brilliant and flow seamlessly with the text. I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually reading a novel that was written in 1968. Everything fits and looks perfect in this adaptation.
Parker’s illustrations also illuminate Dick’s underlining themes and the bigger questions at play. What does it mean to be human? If the androids are more than human, what does that mean? What is empathy and why do we have it? Deckard feels like he is increasingly becoming dehumanized by the hunt for the escaped androids. During Deckard’s internal monologue, Parker often illustrates him imagining that he is killing the androids. By the time that moment comes in reality, Deckard has already done it in his mind repeatedly. There is a sense of anti-climax. It doesn’t mean that much anymore. He has lost some of that empathy.
In addition to the great adaptation, the comics also include an essay at the back of each issue by the likes of Warren Ellis, Jonathan Letham, James Blaylock, TimPowers, etc. The essays are very different from one another. Some discuss the book and film from an academic perspective. Some discuss Philip K. Dick in general. Some are like memoirs. I found all of them illuminating after reading the respective issue.
In short, the comic adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is fantastic. I loved every second of it. I managed to use the internet machines to track down all 24 issues of it, but BOOM! has issued 6 volumes that collect the whole series. I will close with a quote from Gabriel McKee’s essay at the end of issue 21:
Dick’s universes have shaky walls and insubstantial foundations. But throughout it all—and this is where I think many of Dick’s academic admirers get him wrong—he never abandons hope that an authentic ultimate reality exists. At the core of all of that anxiety… there is a faith that something real is hidden beneath the veil, and that it can and will break through that veil to help us. And it is that hope, more that the surface anxiety, that gives his stories such power.
The Best American Comics 2011 is the first comic anthology I’ve read. It convinced me that the comic medium is not well suited for “best of” anthologies, unless the comic is intentionally written to be ingested as a very short piece, like David Lasky’s six-panel “The Ultimate Graphic Novel.” An excerpt from a graphic novel just doesn’t do the work justice. What this anthology did was show me I need to get these graphic novels and read them in their entirety.
Comic fans will be familiar with the best, and most obvious, selections: an excerpt from Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza and Chris Ware’s Jordan W. Lint to the Age 65. Joe Sacco is a master of investigative journalism in the comic medium. His excerpt in the anthology details a massacre of Palestinian men by the Israelis in 1956. He then questions the reliability of memory when trying to discover the facts of the event. Chris Ware is doing some of the most stylistically imaginative work in comics while examining the sad mess people make of their lives.
There are some great surprises in this anthology too. Angie Wang’s short piece “Flower Mecha” is artistically beautiful and strange. Pollen is ruining a woman’s picnic and she fights it off in a hallucinatory mix of art deco and manga. Michael Defarge’s “Queen” is even stranger. A black glob of a creature walks through a strange alien world picking up pieces of mushrooms, flora, and landscape to turn itself into a freakish woman. Both of these pieces are surprisingly interesting, but I’m not sure they are the best of the past year. Looking at the notable mention list at the end of the anthology makes me wonder if there isn’t something better that tells a story using the full capabilities of the comic medium.
The mix of history and memoir in “Little House in the Big City” by Sabrina Jones was intriguing. The mix of history and fictional mystery in “The Mad Scientist” excerpt from RASL by Jeff Smith made me immediately want to read the entire series. “Winter,” an excerpt from Refresh, Refresh by Danica Novgodorrodov, Benjamin Percy, and James Ponsoldt has a great abstract watercolor dream sequence in the middle, but the excerpt simply doesn’t give enough of the story to stand on its own. It’s another one I want to read in its entirety. Kate Beaton’s take on The Great Gatsby is hilarious.
Alison Bechdel is the guest editor for this year’s anthology. She mentions in her introduction that there is a metafiction theme in many of the selections. The best example would be “Pet Cat” by Joey Alison Sayers. Sayers documents the history of a comic strip in its many incarnations until finally God takes over the writing of the strip. The satire comments on how artists are disrespected and exploited.
The anthology was an interesting read, and it pointed me to some works that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I do have a gripe, and I’m sure I’ll get ripped by someone for it, because Bechdel is well respected as a writer and artist. The problem is there’s no hiding her subjectivity or agenda in this anthology. Many of the chosen selections highlight an obvious feminist and gay perspective. “Flower Mecha” and “Queen” are perhaps overt feminist symbolism. Other selections, like “Manifestation” by Gabrielle Bell (which opens the book) and “Weekends Abroad” by Eric Orner, are manifestly feminist and gay, respectively. Again, I look at the list of notable mentions and wonder if there isn’t quite a few on that list that are better comics overall. When the subjectivity is so obvious, I think we have to question is this really an anthology of the best comics in 2011? I understand that an anthology of this sort with a guest editor will never completely escape subjectivity, but I’d like to see some semblance of trying to find a true “best” based on the quality of the work and not some other criterion. Don’t get me wrong. There are quite a few selections in this anthology that deserve to be here.
What Morrison does very well in Supergods is offer an analytical history of superhero comics from the perspective of a fan and talented insider. The book is organized chronologically and progresses through the Golden Age, Silver Age, Dark Age, and Renaissance. Unfortunately, Morrison interjects his own memoir and belief systems, which are not all about comics. The book reads as if it should be two or three separate books, and the further Morrison gets away from analyzing the history of superhero comics, the more disjointed the book becomes.
Supergods is subtitled, “What masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human.” That sounds like a great germinating idea for a critical examination of superhero comics. The first section of the twenty-six chapter, 426 page book comes the closest to living up to the subtitle. Morrison begins at the logical beginning:
In Superman, some of the loftiest aspirations of our species came hurtling down from imagination’s bright heaven to collide with the lowest form of entertainment—and from their union, something powerful and resonant was born, albeit in its underwear. Superman was the ferocious attempt of two young men to show us ourselves at our very best.
Morrison goes on to write an engrossing analysis of the Golden Age of comics. He discusses the creation of Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and the small cast of popular early superheroes. He includes the perfect amount of historical context, pop references, and commentary on the writers and artists to keep the book from becoming overly academic. I found his detailed analyses of the covers of the first issues of Superman, Batman, and Fantastic Four fascinating. Morrison’s prose is full of hyperbole, and his imagery keeps the discussion lively, although at times it’s self-indulgent. At the end of the Golden Age section, he writes:
Alone at night, in the midst of unprecedented luxury after a successfully won World War, Americans were more frightened than ever before… There was the space race, with its launch into the limitless unknown, and Kinsey’s groundbreaking surveys into the sexual habits of Americans, opening the dripping treasure chest of a buttoned-up country’s inner life, revealing a sleep world of polychromatic polymorphous perversity acted out behind a camouflage of pipe-smoking patriarchs and Stepford wives. There were as many different kinds of fear as there were brands of gum.
As the book moves into the Silver Age section, Morrison examines the fifties and sixties era comics. He looks at them in the context of the growing popularity of psychoanalysis and the space race. Along those same lines, He injects his own initiation to comics, but this quickly turns from comics to his family life, his belief systems regarding time, the fifth dimension, and the multiverse. At that point Morrison begins to interrupt the analysis of superhero comics with his own memoir. Morrison had many identity crises. He performed drug inspired occult experiments, and dove into new age philosophy.
Morrison’s career takes off in the Dark Age and Renaissance. His memoir takes over, and the organization and logic of the book are derailed. He writes:
If I found some dangerous or interesting ritual in a book, I’d give it a go to see what effect it would have on my consciousness. The results were never less than revelatory. Psychedelics gave these experiences the fidelity of a Star Trek 3-D holodeck experience. Demons and angels had faces now of white-hot, razor-edged purity or grotesque puzzle box monstrosity… I have no really explanations for a lot of this but numerous speculations that may find their way into another book one day. I simply allowed all this to happen under some vague direction from a diamond-interior Protestant straight-edge self that seemed to never lose control.
Morrison says that his “Protestant straight-edge self” never lost control while he was taking drugs and performing occult experiments. That seems completely illogical to me, especially since he claims to have rejected the Bible at an early age. He also completely botches the central theme of the Gospel message early in the book.
Alan moore and frank miller
Between the memoir sections in the last half, Morrison gives an excellent analysis of Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s work. Yet, he could not restrain himself from including his previously mentioned “speculations” about his mystical experiences. Morrison explains that a life-changing drug induced epiphany he had in Kathmandu gave him his “very own superpower.” He can now “’see’ 5-D perspective.” The last section of the book discusses his “experiments” and explains his new found understanding of time and the universe. His analysis of more recent comics is painfully thin and focuses on his own work. The end of the book loses all coherence. A whole chapter is dedicated to movie adaptations, rather than following the established chronological order of the book.
The history and analysis of superhero comics is excellent, but after the Silver Age, the reader has to pick through the new age philosophy and identity-crisis memoir to find the good stuff. I’m sure there are readers, especially diehard fans of Morrison, who will find the memoir and personal philosophy interesting. But as Morrison even seems to recognize, those topics would be better suited for another book. Check it out here.
The art in Lucille consists of sparse, mostly black and white line drawings, and the subject matter deals with anorexia, alcoholism, dysfunctional father-son relationships, and OCD. Heavy topics for a graphic novel, but that’s the beauty of the medium. It can handle anything. The book clocks in at over 500 pages and is just part one in a series. It’s unique, to say the least, but well worth the read.
The book focuses on Lucille and Arthur, who are both coming-of-age. After being sheltered by her mother and ignored by her peers, Lucille becomes hermetic and anorexic. Arthur, who has OCD, grows up with an alcoholic father who he often has to escort home from the bar. As with all awkward adolescent suffering, there doesn’t appear to be much hope for the two, until they meet each other.
Ludovic Debeurme excels at capturing the intimate thoughts of these characters in their flashbacks, dreams, and internal dialogues. Lucille wants to become light and fly away, “Slender as a thread,” she says. The bare line drawings support Lucille’s aching desire to shed all excess weight and get to the core of being. Debeurme does not use the typical comic panel format. The scenes flow seamlessly on the page, which works especially well in the dream like sequences.
I didn’t feel that Lucille’s character was the most interesting in the book, because the reasoning behind her anorexia has sadly become so commonplace. Arthur’s dysfunctional family and his relationship with his father are developed much more in depth. Arthur goes from being the stereotypical dark and awkward misfit, to having to take on his father’s role within the family, including taking on his father’s name. Arthur continuously struggles to escape his father’s shadow, and Lucille becomes the only beautiful thing in his life.
The book (part one) ends with a suggestion that Lucille will develop much more in the next part. The book won several international comic prizes in its original French, and Debeurme is well respected in Europe. Lucille should bring him to the attention of U.S. readers, especially those who enjoyed Blankets by Craig Thompson and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Topshelf will publish the English translation in July, 2011.