Wednesday, June 30, 2010

George Sprott 1894-1975

I'll make certain to keep this blog from turning into a Seth fan page. But his evocative stuff continues to amaze me.

For example, toward the end of his 2009 book, George Sprott 1894-1975, the biography of an Ontario television personality, amateur Arctic explorer, lecturer and overall heel, parts of which ran in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, the narrator speculates on Sprott’s afterlife. Is he now a ghost hovering near the woods where he played as a child? Out on the tundra having more adventures? By the bar, in the now-defunct Melody Grill, where he drank his dinner for years?

In the 25 tight panels containing the text for this one-page chapter, the artist shows us angles of downtown buildings at night — office windows, a large clock, awnings, a streetlamp, a full moon. But as we pull back and view the page as a whole, we realize they’re not separate images. The two dozen-plus squares form one scene, one image, of the city bathed in moonlight and adorned with a clear night’s stars.

We need to see the big picture. Just as the artist is telling us we must view George Sprott’s life, not in snippets, but as a complete story.

This also might be Sprott’s view from his own office, the white lines holding the panels representing his window panes, and where he sits alone in the dark, late at night.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Battle Angel Alita: Last Order Vol. 13, Part 3

Though Viz Media has been releasing the Battle Angel Alita and the Battle Angel Alita: Last Order series in a tiny format, Yukito Kishiro has managed to cram true art into those small boxes.

In fact, his art work can be magnificent. I always think of that drawing of Alita on top a Space Needle-like building, overlooking the Scrapyard below — an image writer-director James Cameron copied for his “Dark Angel” TV program.

In the most recent edition of Last Order, Kishiro lays out one of his most shocking scenes. In the first chapter of volume 13, we are shown the bestial Homme du Feu, as he tries to sort out his feelings for the gorgeous Olympe, his combat instructor and the only creature who’s ever shown him kindness. As the panels progress, and he recounts “a desire that was my torment,” the boxes themselves become angular, the type grows larger.

… Then a two-page tableau of surprising horror. I’ve been reading Kishiro for years, and I did not see this coming:

The giant crushing paw anchoring the right foreground, the small piercing white pupil-less eyes in the upper left, the dagger teeth and the destruction brought down on Olympe.

And then things get even worse.

Kishiro can turn scenes of mad violence into beauty. And does, often. It’s a rare and powerful skill.

See my earlier posts on volume 13 here and here.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Battle Angel Alita: Last Order Vol. 13, Part 2

I noted in part 1 of my posts on Battle Angel Alita: Last Order Vol. 13 that the main character, Alita, doesn’t turn up until near the end of this book, and then merely for a few panels. She’s only an observer here.

But Yukito Kishiro’s years-long series often takes side trips, exploring some incidental character’s at first seemingly minor backstory. As we follow these offshoots, we see how they affect the main plot, or enrich our understanding of why the people in Kishiro’s morality tales act as they do. In all cases, they enhance our appreciation for the cartoonist’s skills as storyteller and artist … and of humanity itself.

In the “Last Order” series, he’s told of an angry teen who became a killer; of a one-time space hero, worshipped by many, who becomes a dictator; of a nursery school and its sponsorship of a team of karate warriors; of a vampire who fought to save the human race and support King Arthur … and later do battle with Alita.

Indeed, the whole “Last Order” storyline is a branch from Kishiro’s original Battle Angel Alita series. He completed that series, moved on to another, light-hearted title, Aqua Knight. But then he returned to Battle Angel Angel. Starting from approximately four-fifths of the way along in that original story, he began a whole new track. (Which means, yes, he’s changed the happy, hopeful ending in the initial Battle Angel Alita storyline. Things have turned darker, for now. I imagine, though, James Cameron will come up with his own Alita story.)

My next post will rave once again about Kishiro’s art. See my earlier post here, which has links to previous columns about these books.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Battle Angel Alita: Last Order Vol. 13, Part 1

I’m just going to say this up front and be done with it: After Viz Media made us wait eight months for this latest installment of Yukito Kishiro’s Gunnm series — a decade after its publication in Japan, according to the copyright page — the main character appears in only a handful of panels. And then only to be seen munching on a fish. (Yes, yes, the title of this edition is “Sans Angel,” so that’s a large clue she’s not going to be making much of an appearance. But still.)

But even without her, there’s still Kishiro’s skill as a storyteller (and of course as an artist). He’s told of other star-crossed lovers — notably Gally, as the series’ protagonist is known in the rest of the world, and Hugo (Yugo). But he pulls it off again, with a fatal, too-passionate-for-life twist. It’s giving little away to mention “Sans Angel’s” key actor, Homme du Feu, a genetically engineered warrior-werewolf monster directed by the military industrial complex of Kishiro’s dense worlds, is unsure if he wants to eat his Farrah Fawcett-like combat instructor or make love to her.

As with so many of the great Battle Angel Alita love stories, this one is heart-breakingly sad, absurdly funny, repulsive, tragic and ultimately noble.

More on this book. See my earlier posts on this series here (the story of volume 12), here (the art of volume 12) and here (on Viz’s agonizing release schedule).
My first post on the Battle Angel Alita: Last Order/Gunnm books can be seen here: Reading this will help explain a lot in Kirshiro’s superb, dense, unparalleled series.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Today’s edition of USA Today gives a full-page plug to the graphic novel Troublemaker, to be released July 20 and written by Janet Evanovich and her daughter, Alex. Some three-quarters of the page is taken up with a reproduction of a page from the book.

The illustrator, Joelle Jones, gets a one-sentence mention, about halfway into the story.

Jones’s is known for her exemplary art work on Spell Checkers, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her and You Have Killed Me, among other graphic novels. To be associated with Evanovich’s big-selling Alex Barnaby series, which include Metro Girl and Motor Mouth, is not a bad thing.

But, geez, one sentence?

Toward the end of the USA Today story, Alex Evanovich says, “I don’t think the medium (graphic novels) gets nearly as much credit as it deserves. It’s not an easy job.”

Yeah. And maybe she praised Jones’s work on Troublemaker until the cats came home, and it just didn’t make the final story. We’d like to think she would encourage the national media to spread credit when the opportunity arises.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, Part 2

The way Seth works his magic is with silence. It’s how he controls pacing. Here’s an example, from pages 123 through 128 of the paperback edition of his first book, It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken:

As Seth and his friend Chet walk along a Toronto street, he bemoans his most recent breakup with a girlfriend, Ruthie. Seth and Chet stop at a tall building, which Seth notes looks “pretty … against the night sky.” In the next panel, we see the building, set against the stars.

“There’s something in the decay of old things that provokes an evocative sadness for the vanished past,” Seth says, and proceeds to ruminate on the value of lost things, on the quality of old things well made. He speculates his continuing search to track down a one-hit-wonder New Yorker cartoonist, Kalo, might be in vain and pointless.

We’re shown the building again. In the next panel, we see stars in an otherwise barren sky. Then a wider panel of other city buildings.

Next, with no fanfare, a flashback, across a two-page spread: Seth breaking up with Ruthie, and not doing it well. “You’ll regret this later,” she promises, unsmiling. “Trust me.”

Then, present day, as Seth sits in his apartment petting his cat. We see his rotary-dial telephone next to an opened phone book. Then he dials, and waits. He asks for the number of real estate office in Strathroy, another step in his quest to find Kalo.

Then a wide panel across the bottom of the page, showing that building again, and with the other buildings around it, at night.

This reminds me of what movie director Michelangelo Antonioni did in his famous trilogy from the early 1960s. Watch Jeanne Moreau walking around near the beginning of La Notte — the scene continues for long minutes, without dialog, as she and the camera look up at buildings, along empty streets, the heels of her shoes echoing. Silence and thought.

Later, on page 134’s final two panels, Seth tells us, “… It was crazy to think I could find Kalo. Only now, after studying tons of old magazines, can I see that there are literally hundreds of obscure cartoonists — any of whom could have sold, through a stroke of luck, a lone gag to The New Yorker.” (He does keep searching.)

Those panels show us a long shot of small, dark houses, few lights on in their tiny windows, peeked at through tree branches and illuminated only by moonlight. Silence and thought.

See my earlier post on this book here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Battle Angel Alita: Last Order Vol. 13

Viz Media finally — finally — has released the next installment in the Battle Angel Alita: Last Order series (known as Gunnm in the rest of the world). The last English-language edition, volume 12, came out in October 2009; volume 13 won’t be published until January 2011.

The delays on this book are outrageous. There’s such a lengthy gap between editions of this continuing storyline I frankly can’t recall what the heck is going on. And that’s sad as Yukito Kishiro’s years-long tale of cyborgs, sports, class struggle and outer-space mayhem has been pretty great. The art, in addition, is superb. (See my very first post on Gunnm here.)

When I asked a Viz representative at the
American Library Association conference in Chicago last summer about these massive release gaps, he hesitated, then offered that Viz was current with publication of the story’s serialization in Japan.

I really think he was guessing.

See my posts here on volume 12’s story and here on the art. To come: a review of volume 13 — after I go back to reread volumes 11 and 12. Grrr ….

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Part 3

If there’s a drawback to Fantagraphic Books’s remarkable volume one of Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips, containing strips from 1933 through 1935, it would have to be Crane’s attitude toward what his characters invariably deem “savages.”

As with the Tintin books, read today we wince at the many superstitious, easily fooled and easily frightened island and jungle natives depicted in Captain Easy.

What also strikes me as equally as troubling is the wholesale slaughter of animals. Lots of animals. Pigs, cows, small dogs, horses and donkeys, fish, tigers and elephants are speared, shot and mutilated in almost every installment. Particularly pigs, for some reason. I don’t know what Crane had against pigs.

It’s especially problematic, it seems to me, because Crane also populates his strip with an abundance of smiling, cute creatures. More often than not, if we see a cow, donkey or a dog, it’s looking amused by the goings-on or sticking out its tongue in contentment.

But not for long ….

See my earlier, highly laudatory posts on this otherwise valuable book here, here and here. And you can get your hands on a copy by clicking on the cover’s image at the upper left of this post.

Monday, June 7, 2010

It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, Part 1

It’s that comma in the title, don’t you see? It’s grammatically unnecessary, but it’s inclusion seems to hearken to an older, by-gone time. Which is a key theme in Seth’s marvelous It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, a collection of stories from his Palookaville comic books.

Much of this semi-autobiographical tale follows the always-melancholic cartoonist as he visits his mother (to whom the title is attributed, as an often-spoken comment) and brother, rides trains, wonders about past girl friends, borrows money, walks a lot thinking deep thoughts about old cartoons and Canada, and, mostly, tries to track down information about a deceased cartoonist who worked in the 1940s and ’50s under the name of Kalo.

The great conceit about the book is Kalo is fictional — even though Seth has included not only samples of the cartoonist’s work culled from during his supposed rise and fall, from magazines as varied as The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire and Gee-Whiz, as well as an actual 1940s-era photo of the artist leaning against a building somewhere in Manhattan.

All of which gives Seth, as a working cartoonist himself, much to contemplate: How do we know when we’re at our peak? And how to we handle what comes later?

More to come.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Part 2

I don’t know for a fact that the great Hugo Pratt ever saw Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs or Captain Easy from the 1930s and early ’40s, let alone do I have any idea what he might have thought of those newspaper strips.

Pratt did greatly admire, and even outright emulate, Milton Caniff’s trend-setting Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, particularly in the use of chiaroscuro. (The two corresponded with each other, their careers overlapping.)

But looking over Fantagraphic Books’s wonderful new book, Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips, volume one, I have to say Pratt’s mature work for his own adventure strips looks a lot more like Easy and less like Terry.

For one thing, both Crane’s Easy and Pratt’s Corto Maltese were self-proclaimed “soldiers of fortune” — though Easy, a pilot, seemed always to place his hunt for loot ahead of his occasional heart of gold, while with Corto, a sailor, it was the other way around. That could be a sign of their times: Corto, whose tales were written from 1967 and into the late ’80s, was a child of the ’60s, and Easy a product of the Great Depression.

In terms of their art, Crane and Pratt could draw anything, and tapped their own real-life experiences for their exotic locales. But Crane’s characters as well as Pratt’s in his later work (from, say, 1980 on, becoming especially noticeable in The Golden House of Samarkand) had a cartoony style.

That look kept the adventures less grim and more … well, adventurous, as Easy and Corto fought desperate villains and powerful warlords around the world.

Oh, and the women? Always alluring. Real “bons bons,” as Wash Tubbs, Easy’s pal, often remarked. They sulked, they vamped, they carried guns. Even the ones with hearts of stone.

More to come. See my earlier posts on this book here and here.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Part 1

Roy Crane invented the adventure comic strip with Wash Tubbs. With Wash’s buddy, Captain Easy, he perfected it.

Volume one of Fantagraphic Books’s new collection, Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips, covers 1933-1935, and, wow, is Easy busy.

In the April 8, 1934, strip for example — the image area in the colorful Fantagraphics book is nine and a half by 12 and three-quarters inches, to replicate the original Sunday page — our hero hurls his out-of-ammo machine gun at a boat of blood-thirsty pirates, knocking them all overboard; sword fights with another boat full of angry pirates; falls into the sea; swims under a third boat and tips it over; then scrambles back on shore to do battle with yet another pirate, who’s captured the winsome Rose Petal — all in one day’s installment.

“Ha-ya,” Easy yells as he does battle. “Look! Look! Take that, you buzzards!”

Make no mistake. This is great stuff.
(Volume two is expected in November.)

More to come.