Saturday, March 30, 2013

Poseidon: Earth Shaker

In this fifth book of his excellent Olympians series, George O'Connor tackles the mercurial god Poseidon. The ruler of the oceans and seas is a complicated figure, which reflects his relationship with humanity. He offers gifts and an avenue for travel, but he also is extremely dangerous and prone to lash out in anger. His children are almost all monstrous (some outwardly like the Cyclops, others in more guileful ways, like Theseus). In many ways the portrait O'Connor paints of him here is very passive aggressive: he appears amenable and friendly until he snaps and becomes vengeful, creating earthquakes and tidal waves for those who offend him.

Like other volumes in the series, this one also makes overtures where the Greek gods are likened to superheroes (or was that vice versa?), and I was impressed by how much continuity creating there is. Multiple myths, such as the stories of Odysseus, Theseus, the revolt against Zeus, and the founding of Athens, are all reconciled to try to create a larger picture and personality for the god. Also, this book makes more direct references (noted in the excellent endnotes) to other books in the series than I have noted in the others, and O'Connor seems more purposeful in creating a vast tapestry with all of these books.

Artist/writer George O'Connor has created a number of graphic novels in addition to the well received Olympians books about Zeus, Athena, Hera, and Hades. His first one was the American history journal account Journey into Mohawk Country. He also has published a number of children's picture books. He speaks more about his work on the Olympians series in this interview with the School Library Journal.

Like other books in the series, this book has been met with praise. The reviewer at Kirkus Reviews wrote that it was perhaps "not the best volume with which to start this first-rate series, but rousing reading for comics fans who like their heroes heavily muscled, unhappy and occasionally splashed with blood." Teacher Mary Lee noted that the Olympians books were very popular in her classroom and extolled this book for "the combination of great art and good storytelling."

A preview and more is available here from the book's publisher, First Second.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Sailor Twain, or The Mermaid in the Hudson

Over time, many fairy tales have been sanitized, stripped of their sex and violence, and made more appropriate for children. Sailor Twain is a throwback to a more primordial, frightening kind of fairy tale where magical creatures typically trap and doom people. Twain is the captain of the aptly named Hudson River steamboat Lorelei, and strange things are happening on his vessel. There are affairs, people who go missing, castaways, and a fascination with a mysterious author. One day, Captain Twain finds a wounded mermaid and decides to nurse her back to health. This creature augurs bad news, as mermaids are known to drawn sailors to their deaths with their compelling song.

Twain finds himself artistically and personally inspired though, neglecting his wife and nautical duties. At the same time a number of mysteries about people's actual identities begin to crop up, making for some intrigue. Some people on-board appear to want to harm the mermaid, and she appears to be linked to a few past maritime disasters. Although the art and story have some sinister overtones, this is not quite a story about good and evil. It is more about how murky, misty, and indistinct life decisions and human relationships can be.

The backgrounds, buildings, boats, and geometrical faces are all beautifully rendered by artist and writer Mark Siegel, the award-winning editorial director of one of the premier graphic novel publishers, First Second. He co-created the ballerina graphic novel To Dance with his wife and has a few children's books to his credit. He speaks extensively about his work on Sailor Twain in this interview.

Reviews of this book I have read have been very positive. Seth T. Hahne called the book "breathtaking" and found it "beautiful and haunting." Barnes & Noble's Paul Di Filippo felt that it "exerts a mystical attraction." In a more measured review Greg Burgas wrote, "For the most part, Siegel does a very nice job building a strange mystery full of interesting characters, and he does challenge the reader in many ways, which is always good to see," but he felt that the ending did not come together satisfactorily.

This book is published by First Second. It was originally published serially online, and its homepage is a fount of previews, information, and more.

Finally, one word about audience: Although this book does have fairy tale overtones, it also has some language, violence, and nudity that make it more appropriate for more mature readers.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Cruisin' with the Hound: The Life and Times of Fred Toote'

Spain Rodriguez was an underground comix artist who created one of the first undergrounds, Zodiac Mindwarp, and also contributed many works to other anthologies like Zap and Weirdo. He was a prolific artist, known for his strong lines as well as his radical political views that came through in works like the ultra-violent Trashman and an illustrated biography of Che Guevara. He died late last year.

Cruisin' with the Hound contains a series of autobiographical comics that appeared in various publications over the years. These stories follow the "North Fillmore Intelligentsia" as they gallivanted in Buffalo, NY, getting into fights, trying to get laid, buying old EC comic books, and rolling with motorcycle gangs. These stories are an excellent time capsule that reveals many details about life and a growing counterculture movement in the 1950s, but there is also a timelessness to them. These are people striving to find their ways in the world, and it is very easy to empathize with them as they posture, philosophize, and carouse. This book does not sanitize events or get overly nostalgic either; it shows us a gritty and physical version of American life.

A central figure in all of this is Fred Toote', one of Spain's friends whose dark demise is mentioned but not shown here. Fred is a character, driving a car without breaks and without regard to traffic laws, showing off to impress girls, and often making a spectacle of himself. There is something tragic and amazing about him that very much impresses me every time I read these stories. I should mention these tales are frequently hilarious as well.

A collection of a lifetime's worth of stories executed by a comics virtuoso, this book has been well reviewed. The Comic Journal's Jeet Heer called it "a splendid book." The reviewer at Publishers Weekly wrote that it "has energy and rot and sex and fury to spare." Paul Gravett proclaimed that it "comes highly recommended" and provided a link to a podcast of a panel review of the book.

Cruisin' with the Hound contains some of my favorite comics ever, and it is capped off by a substantive interview with Spain. It also contains adult situations, nudity, coarse language, sex, and is definitely not meant for children.

Its publisher Fantagraphics provides previews and much more here.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Rise of Webcomics

I frequently write about webcomic collections on here, and I thought it would be a good idea to show also what is happening online with them so that folks can also see what they are like in their first iterations.

I hope you enjoy or learn from the video.

Thanks to Tom Spurgeon for sharing it!

And for your easy perusal, here are links to the webcomics they mention:

Friday, March 15, 2013

Saga, Volume 1

Saga contains a story about star-crossed lovers in a science fiction setting. Alana, the winged woman on the cover, comes from the Coalition of Landfall, the largest planet in the galaxy, and she was a soldier responsible for guarding the soldier/political prisoner, Marko, pictured above with the ram horns. He comes from Landfall's moon Wreath, where his people are considered savages and upstarts. Before the book begins, they have met, fallen in love, and achieved the seemingly impossible and conceived a child.

The book begins with the throes of birth, and before we can get our bearings we are cast into a rich and complex world of intrigue and adventure. There are many amazing and fearful things to behold: robot royalty, hired killers with unusual pedigrees, ghosts, cats who can tell when people are lying, giant tortoises used for war, and magical wooden spaceships. This is not to say that this book is simply an array of "oh ain't that cool?" things, because it also has a good deal of excellent character work as well as a tight and intricate plot that mixes revelations with cliffhangers to great effect.

Those last features are hallmarks of award winning writer Brian K. Vaughan, whose other works Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina display a similar high level of craftsmanship. His collaborator on this series, artist Fiona Staples has won the 2011 Joe Shuster Award for Outstanding Cover Artist and shares her work on her tumblr and her blog. She is a master of showing emotion and also quite adept at pacing action with her storytelling skills. She speaks more about her career in this interview. Vaughan speaks extensively about his work on this series in this interview.

I felt this book was an exhilarating read, with so many fantastic and personal elements adding up to an excellent story that left me wanting more. I could inundate you with the praise this book has been getting, but I will just say that it is very well represented in Best of 2012 lists and give you these two reviews. It received a starred review from Publishers Weekly: "This is a completely addictive, human story that will leave readers desperately awaiting the next volume." The Onion AV Club praised the series, "Saga is the best kind of genre-bender, defying easy categorization but completely accessible to casual and long-time comics readers alike."

Saga is published by Image Comics. The entire first chapter is available for free from Comixology. It does contain adult situations, some nudity, and harsh language, so it is recommended for mature readers.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Underwater Welder

Jack Joseph is the underwater welder from the title of this book. He works on an oil rig off the coast of Nova Scotia, and he is under pressure from a few circumstances. His work is intense and dangerous. He and his wife are expecting their first baby, who is due within the month. He is haunted by memories of his father, a diver who died in a diving incident, and his relationship with his mother is strained. In the midst of all these tensions, Jack begins to see things while he is at work, things that should not be in the water around him. Of course, he feels compelled to investigate...

This story was very affecting and captured a wide range of emotions. This should come as no surprise to readers who have read other of Lemire's original comics. His artwork is scratchy, in black and white, and packs quite a wallop when it comes to setting moods, delineating characters, and evoking feelings. He makes great use of pacing, with mundane actions balanced with a few wide screen moments reminiscent of Jack Kirby spreads that make for effective storytelling effects.

Jeff Lemire is no stranger to accolades, having won an Alex Award for Tales from the FarmJoe Shuster and Doug Wright Awards for being an outstanding cartoonist, and a Xeric Award for his first graphic novel, Lost Dogs. His Essex County Trilogy was incredibly well received, and he has more recently worked on more mainstream comic books, with his series Sweet Tooth from Vertigo and writing a number of books, including Animal Man, Constantine, and Green Arrow for DC Comics. He speaks about his work on The Underwater Welder in this interview.

Reviews I have read about this book have been resoundingly positive. NPR's Glen Weldon offered this opinion about Lemire's book, "These pages are poignant and masterful, and represent some of the very best work he's ever done." Jason Serafino wrote, "It’s incredibly heartfelt and emotional with a few life lessons sprinkled throughout that you might be able to learn something from. The prospect of a 200-plus page comic book about a family drama might seem intimidating, but once you pick it up you’ll wish it never ended." Erik Norris called it a "tour de force with enough emotional resonance that you might find yourself wiping away a single tear while closing the book’s final page."

A preview and more are available here from the book's publisher Top Shelf.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness

People who suffer mental illnesses are often stigmatized in society, their afflictions seen as character flaws rather than biological problems. Tackling this perception is a main aim of this finely crafted collection of tales based on the author's job experiences as a psychiatric nurse. Here he shows the intimate details of dealing with dementia patients, warts and all, from having to rationalize with them to having to clean up their feces and urine. Other kinds of patients, those who are depressed, the bipolar ones, the ones who cut themselves, the suicidal ones, and the schizophrenics are given similar treatment. All are described in ways that expose how mental illness affects them and the lives of those around them. This book is simultaneously informative, frank, touching, and stark.

The reason for much of the impact lies in British author Darryl Cunningham's keen eye for detail, storytelling ability, and his own experiences with depression, which he covers in the book's final tale. His deft black and white artwork conveys much emotion and information. Some of his other works include the book Science Tales, about scams and hoaxes, and various strips, such as this one about Ayn Rand, and his unique take on superheroes, Super-Sam and John-of-the-Night. He speaks more about his work on Psychiatric Tales in this interview with the Graphic Novel Reporter.

Reviews I have read praise this book;s artistic merits and also its utility as a teaching tool. NPR's Heller McAlpin wrote, "Nursing's loss is literature's gain. With Psychiatric Tales, Cunningham has crafted his own effective way to help both himself and other sufferers of mental illness." The reviewer at Big Rock Candy Mountain called it "a rare and special book...that this should be in every school – in every country." Kirkus Reviews added, "The illustrations are compelling throughout, but the narrative is more powerful when it is more personal and specific." I would agree with this last point that there are some passages more didactic and clinical than others, but on the whole this is quite a moving book.

Psychiatric Tales was published in the US by Bloomsbury. The author has a few preview pages available on his blog (if you scroll down).