Sunday, December 30, 2012


This is a tough book to explain because it has a lot going on. Ichiro is a young son of a Japanese woman and American GI who finds himself in Japan for his mom's job. Unbeknownst to him, the move may be permanent, which bothers this lifelong New Yorker. Dealing with the change in geography as well as his father's death, Ichiro is helped acclimate by his grandfather, who shares with him a great many stories about Japanese and Chinese history and legend as well as about his own family.

That's about half of the book. The rest involves a plot with a mischievous, shape-shifting raccoon who takes the form of a tea pot and traveling to the spirit world where Ichiro sees the results of an on-going struggle between legendary figures Amaterasu, Lord Yoritomo, Hachiman, and Susano. This fictional war has overtones that mesh with the events of World War II and also the Iraq War, where Ichiro's father was killed.

Apparent from all I have described is that this book has plots within plots, and that its mix of fictional and real world concerns makes for an interesting presentation. Themes of loss, loyalty, betrayal, war, pride, and identity undulate like waves throughout. I felt this was a complex, thoughtful book that left me perplexed in places but also willing and eager to reflect and reread. I am not sure all this material coalesces in a satisfying manner, but this is certainly a book that begs to be read more than once.

This book's creator Ryan Inzana is a designer and illustrator whose work has appeared in advertisements and magazines. He has also produced two other graphic novels, Johnny Jihad, a fictional account inspired by John Walker Lindh and the Columbine shootings, and an adaptation of Stud Terkel's Working, written by Harvey Pekar. I thought his artwork and storytelling in Ichiro was strong, with good use of color and line. The size, format, and excellent paper quality also added to its luster. Inzana speaks about his work on this book in these two interviews.

Reviews I have read about Ichiro have been mixed, commenting on its strengths and drawbacks. The reviewer at Literary Treats "applaud[ed] his creative approach at tackling such a disturbing, emotional subject matter" and also added that this is a "great graphic novel for anyone who wants to learn more about Japan, or about the Japanese side of World War II history." In a lukewarm review Infodad commented that this book "simply tries too hard to do too much – it has well-done moments but is not, as a whole, especially compelling."

Ichiro is published by Houghton Mifflin. There is a preview available at Amazon.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Our Movie Year

Harvey Pekar was well known for his autobiographical comics, particularly his decades long series American Splendor. He became a fixture on Late Night with David Letterman, and eventually his idiosyncratic voice was portrayed in the 2003 film American Splendor directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini and starring Paul Giamatti. This movie won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Fim Festival and also brought Pekar an unprecendented level of fame and attention. This graphic novel mostly chronicles the year the movie broke.

With its pages, Harvey worries about his post-movie life, fearing all the attention will go away and he will be seen as a flash in the pan. He also details his many travels (sometimes telling the same tale more than once), brushes with famous folk, and obsesses over care for his cats, house, and bills while he is gone. Ironically, maybe the most affecting stories, about a vet visit for a cat and another about a saltwater aquarium doomed by a power outage, have nothing to do with the movie. Also, the last third of the book contains a number of various and sundry works Harvey wrote about celebrities and musicians from the past as well as his selections for the movie soundtrack, making for an interesting, if disconnected, hodge-podge.

This book was illustrated by an all-star team of Pekar's collaborators, including R. Crumb, Frank Stack, Gerry Shamray, Gary Dumm, Ed Piskor, and Dean Haspiel. Their different styles cast different tones for the stories and events, echoing the look of past American Splendor comic books and also the metanarrative of the film. Pekar, who wrote the stories in this book, died in July of 2010, and his life is properly celebrated in this obituary.

Reviews I have read of this book have been on the negative side, perhaps due to comparison with the usual high standards set by Pekar's other works. The Onion A.V. Club's Tasha Robinson wrote, "The results are scattershot and even sometimes impersonal, which is unusual for Pekar's work. It seems incongruous that his world-hopping and his celebrity encounters should so often be humdrum, while his detailed recounting of an hour spent waiting for a tow truck is so involving." The reviewer at Grovel commented on how the book is uneven but "despite its faults this is a great companion to the movie, not least of all because it goes further behind the scenes than even the movie itself did." Kevin Forest Moreau concluded that this book was a weak offering in the American Splendor corpus, "somewhat intimidating and, yes, padded."

This book was published by Ballantine Books.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Graphic Canon, Volume 2: From "Kubla Khan" to the Brontë Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Graphic Canon is an ambitious project that began earlier this year with the first of a projected trilogy of tomes. It has garnered positive attention from a number of prominent sources, including The New York Times, and this the second volume ranges roughly from the Romantic to Victorian literary eras. Not all of the entries are sequential art, and some are stand alone illustrations or text pieces with a few illustrations. Most of them have not been published before. This volume focuses more on British literature than the prior one, which was more international, but it still contains a number of winning entries from exciting creators, including established figures as well as up-and-comers.
Among my favorites are:

As you can tell, there is a lot of ground, both in terms of content and styles, covered within these pages. Most of it is not for young children, but other than the inclusion of an excerpt of Venus in Furs, nothing is beyond the ken of typical high school students. It seems that editor/provocateur Russ Kick played it a little safer with this volume. Maybe he is saving up "the good stuff" for the final volume, which will be more contemporary in scope?

Reviews I have read about volume two might not be as positive as they were about volume one, but they are still strongly in its favor. Emphasizing the worth of this book, Publishers Weekly wrote, "Apart from containing insightful introductions and wonderful artwork, these selections have a not-to-be-underestimated pedagogical value that educators will no doubt find invaluable in bringing classic works of literature to a 21st-century audience immersed in visual culture." Glenn Dallas offered a more tempered opinion, calling this collection "pretty hit-or-miss, depending on the source material and the artist," adding, "but it’s still an impressive sampling of historical and literary touchstones." Buzz Poole concluded that most of what is in this volume "exceeds expectations for how it absorbs familiar texts and shapes new lives into them, reminding readers how words read in a book can color so much of life that exists far beyond the page."

The Graphic Canon, Volume 2 is published by Seven Stories Press. A YouTube preview is available from the editor. Also, a number of preview images are available here from Brain Pickings.

Thank you, Gabe, for the review copy!

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Unemployed comedian/actor Guy Krause gets the opportunity to do what many people would like in this graphic novel: to go back and change his past. He is approached to volunteer for an experiment in virtual reality where he can relive experiences and change their outcomes. Imagine being able to go back and ask out that crush that never was consummated, to mend relationships with estranged parents, to make those changes to avoid that horrible divorce, to make that bet to strike it rich. Guy gets to do all those things and more, and if things go horribly awry, he can hit the reset button and try again.

What makes this book interesting and not just a riff on Groundhog Day is not just that Guy is unstable and unpredictable to the point where he jeopardizes the experiment, but also that there is a mystery as to how the programmers know so much about the intimate details of his past and another as to who exactly is backing this experiment and why. Some of these questions are addressed by the end of this book but some remain clouded. It is a stretch to say that the characters here are likeable, but they are very human, relatable, and intriguing.

Many of the themes in this book are common to the work of Peter Bagge. In the more than three decades he has been working in comics he has explored the mundane realities of people's lives, the outcomes of their choices, and the effects of changing trends and technologies. His series Neat Stuff and Hate are seminal alternative comics works, and his more recent stuff such as Apocalypse Nerd and Other Lives remain topical and relevant. Bagge talks more about his career and work on this series in this interview.

Online reviews I have read about this book have been on the positive side. James Hunt wrote that there is "a strong, traditionally structured story at the heart of this issue and plenty of directions in which it could develop." Chuck Suffel called it "an interesting book, witty and weird," that is enhanced by Bagge's "unique art style." Rob Wells commented that  "Reset isn’t exactly hilarious, but these two comics raised quite a few smiles, and even a few sniggers." Emmanuel Malchiodi wrote that this book was "both funny and engrossing."

Previews for each of the individual issue are available here from the book's publisher Dark Horse.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Please consider funding this project

Dara Naraghi and Brent Bowman are comics creators whose latest project Persia Blues is about a young woman trying to reconcile the past and present in Iran. It will be gorgeously illustrated, well-researched, and well-written, tackling big issues about identity in entertaining and provocative manner. The book is the first in a trilogy to be published by NBM.

This book is a huge undertaking and in order to compensate the artist for all the time spent on research and study, there is a modest Kickstarter funding drive going on. There is less than a week remaining to pledge money to this worthy project, and rewards include signed books, original art, getting yourself drawn as a character in the book, and more.

Here is a link to the Kickstarter page.

Here is a link to some of Brent's artwork in progress.

This seems an excellent project to me, so I hope it reaches its funding goal.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Tribute to Spain Rodriguez

Manuel "Spain" Rodriguez, a prolific and seminal underground comix artist who produced work over five decades died November 28, 2012. He published one of the first underground comix series, Zodiac Mindwarp, and was probably most famous for his creations Trashman and Big Bitch. His social views showed through in his many counter-culture works, including his recent biography of revolutionary Che Guevara. A list of his various works can be found here, and his thoughts have also been well expressed in this interview about his Trashman series. Spain's artistic chops were well-honed from decades of drawing and creating his own works, which can be seen on his official website (note: NSFW).

Here is his obituary from The New York Times (also where I got the image above). This collection of thoughts, remembrances, and reflections from a variety of his colleagues, readers, and collaborators from Tim Hodler at The Comics Journal is an excellent celebration of the man. The Comics Reporter Tom Spurgeon also has amassed a number of links to various tributes.

RIP, Spain.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Happy 55th Birthday, Peter Bagge!

Famous for his swirly, frenetic, and cartoony style, Peter Bagge is a groundbreaking and prolific comics artist whose work helped define and steer the comics art scene after the underground comix period. His editorship of Weirdo as well as his series Neat Stuff in the 1980s led to his work on Hate, and were instrumental in ushering in the alternative comics scenes of the 1990s and 2000s. His works have also appeared in numerous non-comics venues, such as Reason magazine and the notoriously over-the-top tabloid The World Weekly News.

Early in his career, Bagge was published by Robert Crumb in Weirdo and was eventually named editor of that alt-comics precursor. He went on to publish Neat Stuff at Fantagraphics, giving readers a number of different characters and storylines. Among his observational humor and parodies were the brash, annoying Girly Girl, the pathetic man-child Junior, the oblivious Goon in the Moon, the grating shock-jock Studs Kirby, and dysfunctional suburban family The Bradleys.

After this series ended, Buddy, the eldest Bradley son, went on to star in Hate, which along with Dan Clowes' Eightball, is considered one of the major alternative comics series of the 1990s. The early issues of the series followed Buddy as he moved to Seattle and navigated the nascent grunge scene. This series is notable because it shows Buddy aging as it goes along. It is still published today on an annual basis, with Buddy now being a father and cantankerous business owner in New Jersey.

Although Bagge has spent the majority of his career on his own creations and on his own terms, he has had a few forays into the two big comics companies. He wrote and Gilbert Hernandez drew nine issues of the comic book series Yeah!, which was a fun, gorgeous look at a pop band who happened to tour in outer space, for DC Comics. At the same company, he wrote and drew the comics industry parody Sweatshop. He also did some work at Marvel, producing the very interesting and provocative, if not-well-received-at-the-time, The Egomaniacal Spider-Man and The Incorrigible Hulk, which was shelved for a long time before it was finally published in an anthology.

Today, Bagge remains creative, topical, and independent with his work. He has worked on series such as Apocalypse Nerd, a survival story set in the Pacific northwest after a nuclear attack from North Korea. He has also explored the effects of technology on people's lives in the graphic novel Other Lives and series Reset.

In non-comics arenas, Bagge has published a strip about Bat Boy, The World Weekly News's mascot. In that insane run, Bat Boy has all kinds of adventures, gets elected president of the US, and eventually ends up marrying Beyoncé (who, it turns out, is actually a Bigfoot). In a more serious vein, Bagge has been a contributing editor and cartoonist for Reason magazine for a number of years now. This has been the primary forum for his work that details his Libertarian views, and a bunch of his strips have been collected in Everybody is Stupid Except for Me. Bagge talks more about his work and views in this interview.

In 2010, Bagge won the prestigious Inkpot Award for his achievements in comics. He also won Harvey Awards in 1991 for Best Cartoonist and Best New Series for his work on Hate. For his various works over time, he has also been nominated for multiple Eisner Awards.

On top of being an accomplished comics creator Bagge has also been an active musician, for years in a band called the Action Suits and currently in Can You Imagine? Check out their MySpace page for more of their songs, especially if you like a 1960's pop sound with a lot of harmonies.

Is it clear yet that I am a huge fan of this guy? I wish him a very happy birthday!

Monday, December 10, 2012

One Dead Spy

This first volume of Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales, fittingly enough, tells the tale of Nathan Hale. It is also written and drawn by Nathan Hale. Hale was a Yankee spy during the American Revolutionary War who is probably best known for his famous last words. In this book, just before he is hanged, something magical happens, and he is given full view of American history. To stall his inevitable end he starts telling stories to a talkative hangman and a priggish British proctor, beginning here with his own. Those two make great foils for each other and for Hale as well. This situation sets up a sturdy storytelling engine, as Hale acts as Scheherezade, setting up a series of books. Its first sequel was released simultaneously, Big Bad Ironclad.

Adding to a narrative delivered in enjoyable fashion, Hale also provides copious back matter, including a reading list for future research. He also provides a section for fact-checking, run by babies(!) and a bonus story about Crispus Attucks. This book surely does not skimp on information about the people and events of this time period.

Creator Nathan Hale already has drawn two graphic novels, Rapunzel's Revenge and its sequel Calamity Jack. He has also drawn a variety of children's books, including Frankenstein: A Monstrous Parody and The Dinosaurs' Night Before Christmas. He shares his publications, news, and fun artwork via his blog.

Reviews I have read about this book thus far have been very positive. Travis from 100 Scope Notes gushed, "Full of thrilling moments, engaging historical information, and boundless creativity, this is what graphic novel nonfiction for kids should be." Kirkus Reviews called the book, "An innovative approach to history that will have young people reading with pleasure." Brett Schenker wrote that "it’s great to be able to read something that’s entertaining for both kids and adults (and educational)!" Mike Pawuk at the School Library Journal concluded, "With Nathan, the Hangman, and the British Soldier, the mix of humor, adventure, and historical facts makes this an engaging historical series, and I can’t recommend it high enough for all libraries."

One Dead Spy is published by Amulet Books. There is a preview available at Amazon.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Saga of the Bloody Benders

Based on shocking true events, The Saga of the Bloody Benders tells of a family that settled in Kansas as a result of the Homestead Act of 1862, calling themselves the Benders. The beautiful young daughter Kate was beguiling to many men, and she also worked as a healer and a medium, displaying a disturbing connection with the spirit world. The family opened a small grocery store and an inn on a main travel route, and many of the people who came through the area with money in their pockets to stake their own claims stayed a night there. Many of them were never seen again. Months later, when investigators finally zeroed in on the goings-on of the Bender family, they disappeared and were never found.

The horrible evidence of their deeds was all that was left, as no one could even determine the family's identity. The murder weapons and grisly corpses contributed to a gruesome, sensational tale that spread across the US. The story of the "Bloody Benders" fascinated many, and legends have arisen about their identities and their final fates. The mystery of the Bloody Benders still continues to intrigue people to this day. Currently, director Guillermo Del Toro is working on a motion picture version of the story.

Rick Geary is an acclaimed and accomplished comics creator whose attention to craft is evident. As with many of the volumes in Treasury of Victorian Murder series, this book is meticulously researched and detailed. I particularly liked his many maps and house diagrams in this book, as well as the many scenarios he presents about the possible circumstances and identities of this "family." Coupling this verisimilitude with expert pacing and storytelling, Geary did an excellent job of creating an ominous, foreboding tone while maintaining a journalistic style.

The Saga of the Bloody Benders has been an well regarded book, with a section excerpted in Best American Comics (2008) and it also being named a YALSA Great Graphic Novel. Accordingly, it has been reviewed well. Andrew Wheeler praised it for Geary's "lively art – particularly the very expressive faces of his characters – and his amazingly useful diagrams and maps makes his work unique and compelling." Publishers Weekly called the art "exquisite" and the writing "riveting." Andy Shaw was a bit more lukewarm about the book, enjoying the art but criticizing the writing's "dry but authoritative tone, which leaves it feeling like a decent dissemination of the known information on this mysterious, murdering family."

Here is a preview from the book's publisher NBM.