Lucille by Ludovic Debeurme

wilsonknut.comThe 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.

heavy topics

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.

thread

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.

Lucille

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.

X’ed Out by Charles Burns

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It should be common knowledge by now that X’ed Out, the first volume of a new trilogy by Charles Burns, is chock full of weirdness, mystery, and beautiful artwork.  The book is part revision of Hergé’s TinTin, part tribute to William Burroughs, part Alice in Wonderland, and something new yet to be revealed.  Within all of that, there are some interesting themes that I’m sure Burns will expand on in the next two volumes.

Doug, the protagonist, has suffered some mystery trauma and spends most of his time in bed in the basement of his parents’ house looking at old Polaroids of his girlfriend.  The narrative slips back and forth between this reality, a Burroughs inspired dream world induced by Doug’s painkillers, flashback sequences where Doug meets and falls in love with Sarah (the girl in the Polaroids), and past conversations with Doug’s father.

The idea of motherhood, or more specifically failed motherhood, runs throughout X’ed Out.  Doug’s mother is mentioned, but never seen.  Doug and his father both want to avoid her.  In one flashback sequence Doug remembers his father saying, “Your Mom and I…We started out with such high hopes…But I guess things don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to.”  Like Doug, his father retreats downstairs, which Burns has admitted is a symbol for the womb.  Doug comes upstairs for Poptarts and reminds himself that his mom will not be home from work until 5:30 He says, “…at least I don’t have to deal with her.”

Sarah has a thing for fetal pigs in jars, one of which gets broken by her “psycho” ex-boyfriend at the party where Doug meets Sarah.  She poses topless with one fetal pig as a Madonna and child (she poses topless a lot).  There is a panel of an actual Madonna and child.  Lizard-like fetuses and eggs are everywhere in Doug’s dream world.  To top it off, a cartoonish version of Sarah appears in the dream world.  Doug’s nameless, baby-like alien guide tells him she is the new Queen of the hive, a breeder.

Identity is another interesting issue in the book.  Doug’s alter-ego is Nitnit.  He puts on a mask that resembles TinTin when he reads his cut-up poetry in reality, perhaps subconsciously wanting to hide from his audience.  In his dream world, Doug is Nitnit.  Doug also identifies with his father.  Like his father, Doug spends his time in the basement looking at photographs and dwelling on the past.  Doug’s guide in the dream world smokes like his father and, I would argue, vaguely resembles his father.  Adding to that, Nitnit has several visions of his father while he is with the guide.

What does this all mean?  It’s too early to tell.  X’ed Out is short and leaves more questions than answers, but it is only volume one of what should be a great trilogy.  Burns has stated in interviews that all of these “threads” will come together in the next two volumes.  And let’s not forget the beautiful artwork.  I’ve compared Bill Sienkiewicz’s artwork to fever dreams before, but I have to say that Burns has really captured that particular strangeness in his vivid colors and style.  Get your copy here. The next volume, The Hive, is slated to come out sometime in 2011.

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The Black Dossier by Alan Moore

Black Dossier Cover - wilsonknut.comIf James Joyce’s Ulysses is the demonstration and summation of modernist literature, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier is the paradigm for post-postmodernism in graphic novels.  Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad has received critical acclaim for its structure and interconnecting stories.  She includes a section consisting of PowerPoint slides. Another includes text messages. Those techniques pale in comparison to what Moore accomplishes in The Black Dossier.

Volumes 1 and 2 of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series are critically acclaimed mash-ups of Victorian literature, pulp fiction, steampunk, and Moore’s own twists.  The Black Dossier was to serve as a standalone sourcebook between volume two of the series and a proper volume 3. It grew into much more.  Moore has stated in various interviews that he and Kevin O’Neill realized early that the series was growing into an attempt to map the entire fictional world and how it relates to fact.  They created a study and commentary on the popular imagination.  But in the structure and complexity of The Black Dossier, I also see the growth and culmination of literary movements throughout history into something new.

Experimental Joyride

Similar to Joyce’s Ulysses, The Black Dossier is very experimental in its structure and construction.  Critics of the book have noted that the narrative plot is very weak.  Mina Harker and Allan Quartermain have recovered The Black Dossier, which contains the secret history of The League.  Emma Night (Peel), Bulldog Drummond, and a young James Bond chase them all over London and Scotland trying to stop them.  In true Moore style, you would have to do a tremendous amount of research to figure out all of the references and allusions. Moore throws in his twists on characters and events for good measure.  For example, James Bond (Jimmy in the book) is a sadistic womanizer and the events take place in 1958 after the Big Brother government from George Orwell’s Ninteen Eighty Four has fallen.

The narrative is merely a shell for The Black Dossier itself, which Mina and Allan stop to read at various points in the narrative.  The Dossier takes over the story metafictionally (if that’s a word). There are faux historical texts, comic strips in various styles, a “lost” Shakespeare folio. But wait! There’s more— prose in the style of H.P Lovecraft and Jack Kerouac, post cards, Big Brother posters in the style of English WWII posters, maps, and more.  Throughout these artifacts are mysterious handwritten notes that point back to the narrative at hand and the previous volumes in the series.  The complexity of it all is overwhelming.

Decoder Ring

To add to the complexity, the graphic novel contains a 3D section set in “the Blazing World” with glasses.  The cover to the Kerouac section mimics the paperback style of the early Kerouac books when they were published. It even includes the creases they would have had from being read.  Like Ulysses, you need an annotated version to understand it all.  Some folks have been kind enough to put one together- Black Dossier annotated.

Black Dossier - Alan Moore - wilsonknut.comBlack Dossier - Alan Moore - wilsonknut.comSo what separates Moore’s book from A Visit from the Goon Squad, or Ulysses for that matter?  As a medium, the graphic novel has the potential to capture the contemporary human experience far better than the traditional novel.  We are inundated with visuals and images by television, advertising, and internet.  So much could be done with the medium.

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Strengths & Weaknesses

I think it goes back to the perceived weakness of The Black Dossier– narrative.  Egan’s book, though experimental in structure and technique, is about characters and narrative.  They are “real” characters with “real” stories.  The themes capture truths about the human experience that run deep.  If Moore could capture that along with the genius he has for pop culture, structure, and technique; we would see a phenomenal new literature.

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Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O’Malley

can one describe Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life?  Hipster-absurdist-arcade-kung-fu-musical?  Whatever you want to call it, the book exudes coolness, and it’s not the pretentious brand of hipster coolness.  It’s a goofy, kind of stupid and fun coolness.

Scott, 23-years-old, announces that he is dating a high school girl, Knives.  He’s in a band and doesn’t have a job.  He epitomizes the laid-back slacker mentality.  His friends give him grief about the relationship, but before things get hot and heavy with Knives, Scott falls for Ramona, a rollerblading delivery girl.  As the story progresses, the absurdity increases.

Both girls show up at the band’s show, which causes problems.  The real problem, however, is that Ramona’s ex-boyfriend also shows up.  He’s able to summon some kind of demon-girl fighters, and an arcade style kung-fu battle, partially set to a musical, breaks out.  The premise for the rest of the series is established.  Scott will have to fight Ramona’s seven ex-boyfriends if he truly loves her.

The story is a take on the classic medieval epic, but Bryan Lee O’Malley fills it with tributes to manga, retro arcade games, music, sit-coms, and slacker attitude.  There is humor throughout.  It’s a perfect mix of realism and absurdity.  It’s just fun.

Jimmy Corrigan: the smartest kid on earth by Chris Ware

Simply put, Jimmy Corrigan is the pinnacle of what graphic novels are capable of as an art form- story, structure, graphics, everything.  I’m ashamed to say that I’m very late in reading the book, so I’ll let you read proper reviews here:

Guardian

Flak Magazine

The Independent

I’ve heard some people say that the book is frustrating and difficult to read because of the nontraditional structure, but the structure is part of the meaning.  It is not just a story with pictures, as many comics are.  It is more than that, and I compare any difficulty in reading it to the difficulty of reading any quality literature (think Cormac McCarthy, Kurt Vonnegut, James Joyce, et cetera).  Check it out here.

Some excerpts (these are random, except for the third and forth pages here, which are presented in order):

The Walking Dead Books 1-3

I’m late getting to this series, but I have always heard good things about it.  It recently won an Eisner Award, and AMC is airing the first episode of their new television series based on the comic October 31.  I figured I might as well check out the original.  I’m not a big horror fan, especially in comic form, but I do like the classic zombie films.  Here I am three books (36 issues) later.  Be warned: the series is like potato chips (or what I imagine crack cocaine must be like).  You can’t just read one.

Author Robert Kirkman is a master of the cliffhanger and plot twist.  Every issue ends with the reader wanting to immediately read the next, which is certainly good for business in the comic world.  I’ve read a lot comments on the net praising the characterization and how the series deals with the human condition.  My elitist English Lit pedigree will not let me buy into it truly being literary in that aspect, like say Maus or Stitches. It’s a zombie comic.  It’s escapist fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I love the series, or I wouldn’t have read the first three collections straight through.  In terms of characterization and overall literary weight, I have to say it probably rises to the same level as a good Stephen King novel, although I haven’t read enough King to truly judge.   But it is really, really, outstandingly good as a zombie / survival series, perhaps even the best.

Book 1 (issues 1-12) introduces the reader to Rick, the protagonist, and the situation, a zombie epidemic.  Rick is a cop, and he was in a coma from being shot in the line of duty.  He wakes up to find the hospital abandoned, except for the zombies.  He quickly learns the basics of the situation and heads for Atlanta where the government has supposedly set up a safe haven.  He joins a group of survivors with an RV.  There are plot twists galore, and then they meet another group of survivors who have a farm.  There are more plot twists, and Rick and his group are invited to leave the farm.

Book 2 (issues 13-24) begins with the group stumbling on a new safe haven.  I’ll not give it away.  It is in book 2 that we begin to learn more about the characters.  Several go through changes, especially Rick.  There’s a lot zombies, and as always, there are plot twists galore.

Book 3 (issues 25-36) is probably the weakest of what I’ve read.  Rick and a couple of group members go on an expedition.  Once again, I’ll not give it away.  They find other survivors and learn that live humans may be more dangerous than the zombies.  The characterization of several of the new characters in these issues is pretty weak in my opinion.  They just don’t make sense to the point of breaking the suspension of disbelief, which is saying a lot being that this is a zombie comic.  Oddly enough up to this point, the series has not been especially gory.  Book 3 is gory and even excessive in one issue. There are plot twists in these issues, but none are as surprising as the previous books.

My one criticism as a whole is that the dialogue can be pretty terrible.  The characters tend to say each others’ names way too often, especially when it’s a private conversation between two people.   It may be annoying to the discerning reader, but if you’re into the story, it will not stop you from picking up the next issue.

Special Exits by Joyce Farmer

wilsonknut.comIn this graphic memoir, Joyce Farmer  chronicles the gradual decline of her elderly parents’ health and how that decline affects their relationships, their emotional well-being, and their day-to-day existence.  Farmer’s parents, Lars and Rachel,  face their suffering with a stoicism that borders on insanity, refusing to see doctors or simply just not telling their daughter they are seriously ill because they don’t want to bother her.  Lars tells Farmer at one point, “Things get worse in such small increments you can get used to anything.”

Farmer’s parent live in a bad neighborhood in southern Los Angeles.  They experience the 1992 L.A. riots as shut-ins, her mother not being able to leave the couch.  Farmer’s father can see the flames from their front door.  Their house is in disrepair, and like most elderly couples, they get to a point where they just can’t keep up with the cooking and cleaning.  Farmer regularly visits to clean the house, shop for groceries, and learn about her parents’ lives; but it is too much for one person to do part-time.  She hints throughout the years that they need assisted living, but both of her parents refuse until it is no longer an option.  In fact, her father makes her promise that he will be able to die in his own house.

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Anyone who has cared for a loved one in that last season of life, or witnessed their parents care for their grandparents, will attest to the heartbreaking truth about the human condition Farmer has captured in pen. This book, like Art Spiegelman’s Maus,  will likely become a classic in the graphic novel medium for its artistic craftsmanship and emotional power.

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The Sandman: Endless Nights by Neil Gaiman

wilsonknut.comThis is the first The Sandman that I’ve read, and it was obvious that this is not the place to start.  I imagine that you have to already know these characters and their stories to get much out of this.  Each vignette focuses on one of the Endless, who are evidently some mix of mythological god-like incarnations of human emotions… or something. There is not a lot of explanation for anyone new to the series.  Some of the vignettes are stories.  Some are fragmented portraits of that specific character.  I thought the stories were weak, but that could be because I came into the book knowing nothing about the characters.

The artwork in The Sandman, on the other hand, made it a worthwhile read.  I particularly enjoyed the artwork in “Fifteen Portraits of Despair”   by Barron Storey and, of course, “Delirium Going Inside” with art by Bill Sienkiewicz.  Storey’s portraits of Despair are fragmented and bizarre, capturing the terror and hopelessness that accompanies despair.

Pick up a copy here.

Sienkiewicz is a personal favorite.  Delirium actually has a story, but I couldn’t make much sense of it.  Maybe that’s the point, seeing that it is Delirium, but I got the feeling that there is a back story that I didn’t know that would have explained it.  However, Sienkiewicz’s collage and watercolor style is brilliant as always.

Palestine by Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco is one of a very unique and rare breed of journalist and war correspondent.  He reports in comics- longish, book-length comics.  His research is scrupulous, and he is painfully honest about his intentions and subjectivity to the subject.   He’s also a little self-deprecating, which is refreshing coming from a war correspondent these days. Palestine by Joe Sacco is the result of Sacco’s trip to the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the early 1990s.

Sacco visited the area during the First Intifada (Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation).  The book was first published in a series of 9 comics in 1993 and then collected in paperback form in 2001.  Palestine by Joe Sacco is generally considered groundbreaking for its form and subject.

Structure

The book chronologically follows Sacco’s arrival  in Cairo to his departure.  For context, he occasionally provides flashbacks to historical events, the Gulf War, and the beginning of the intifada.  But for the most part he provides story after story and scene after scene of desolate conditions and broken lives in the Palestinian refugee towns.

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The 2001 edition I have has an excellent introduction by Edward Said, which I will liberally quote from rather than bore you with my drivel.  Said writes:

In Joe Sacco’s world there are no smooth-talking announcers and presenters, no unctuous narrative of Israeli triumphs, democracy, achievements, no assumed and re-confirmed representations — all of them disconnected from any historical or social source, from any lived reality — of Palestinians as rock-throwing, rejectionist, and fundamentalist villains whose main purpose is to make life difficult for the peace-loving, persecuted Israelis.  What we get instead is seen through the eyes and persona of a modest-looking ubiquitous crew-cut young America man who appears to have wandered into an unfamiliar, inhospitable world of military occupation, arbitrary arrest, harrowing experiences of houses demolished and land expropriated, torture (“moderate physical pressure”) and sheer brute force generously, if cruelly, applied (e.g., an Israeli soldier refusing to let people through a roadblock on the West Bank because, he says, revealing enormous, threatening set of teeth, of  THIS, the M-16 rifle he brandishes) at whose mercy Palestinians live on a daily, indeed hourly basis.

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Strengths & Weaknesses

My only problem with the book is that the avalanche of wasteland-like refugee towns and Kafkaesque stories of torture being told over endless cups of tea in small living rooms packed with people showing their wounds all run together.  Even Sacco says that he has “heard this all before” at one point, and that is roughly halfway through the book.  I felt like I never really got to know any of the Palestinian characters.  They all seemed like the same character with that same broken-spirit expression, except maybe the woman in the segment “The Tough and The Dead.” I liked her.  I think the character issue is just a problem of sheer mass of information.  And of course that’s my opinion.  I could be totally wrong.

Even with that one fault, it is a great work of nonfiction, and I don’t know of anything like it dealing with this subject.   Said writes in his introduction:

…his comics about Palestine furnish his readers with a long enough sojourn among a people whose suffering and unjust fate have been scanted for far too long and with too little humanitarian and political attention.  Sacco’s art has the power to detain us, to keep us from impatiently wandering off in order to follow a catch-phrase or a lamentably predictable narrative of triumph and fulfillment.

I’ll leave you with that. You can pick up a copy here.

Godspeed: The Kurt Cobain Graphic by Barnaby Legg, Jim McCarthy, and Flameboy


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Wow, where do I begin?  I couldn’t resist the novelty of this, but I feel a little dirty after having read it.  This is pretty much a fairy tale, not a biography.  I don’t think the authors had any intention of writing a realistic biography, but how do you write a “fictional biography” (as a graphic novel no less) about someone like Kurt Cobain?  I don’t know.

The book is told from Kurt’s first person perspective looking back on his life after he has committed suicide.  Obviously from the very beginning, liberties are taken imagining what Kurt might have to say and what he was thinking. The last few days of his life are a mystery and so certainly the authors here are imagining, just as other biographers have imagined, what happened in that time period.

I have read about many of the major scenes in this book in other well-researched biographies.  Other information and dialogue appears to have been taken directly from interviews.  The questionable material is much of Kurt’s inner dialogue and his thinking process.  Since the book is told in the first person from his perspective, that can be a problem for discerning readers.

The artwork is okay, but I think it is hard to capture the grunge scene of the early 90s in glossy comic art.  It was kind of anti-glossy, you know?  The religious symbolism- Kurt with halos, Kurt with a crown of thorns, Kurt at the last supper/drug intervention- is ridiculous and only serves to perpetuate the rock icon myth, which he loved and despised at the same time.  The man was mentally ill and self medicated with heroin.  He was a brilliant songwriter and musician, but he was not sacrificing himself and he certainly wasn’t innocent.

All in all I see this being something teenagers, who don’t know the facts, would like.  It’s all about the fairy tale rock-star-rebel-hero myth, which angst ridden teens eat up.  I know because I used to be one of those angst ridden teens, and I was coming-of-age when Nirvana exploded.  Looking back, the music has weathered well.  It’s still brilliant.  All of the rest, well… I guess I’m getting old.