Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Clyde Fans Book 1

I’ve just finished Seth’s Clyde Fans Book 1 — collected from issues 10-15 of his comic book, Palookaville — and I suppose, all things considered, it’d be too much to hope for a happy ending at the conclustion of Book 2 ….

As with other stories of his, Seth’s pacing is the genius of his work.

Part 1 of this book consists of Abe Marchcard, in 1997, wandering through the offices, the residence above and the basement below of family-owned Clyde Fans, now out of business. He putters, picks things up, puts them down somewhere else, straightens a picture, takes a bath, lights a cigar, prepares supper, goes outside and comes back in, turns on a radio and moves on, for 68 pages — all the while telling us about the company’s history, salesmanship in general and his brother, Simon, in particular.

Part 2 shows Simon attempting to make cold calls in 1957, in the town of Dominion (a regular stopping-off point for Seth characters in others stories). He’s anxious, lacking in self-confidence and sales skill — he’s clearly is not suited to this affable, self-driven line of work. He’s sweating in winter.

Seth punctuates Simon’s movements around town with panels of Abe, testily puffing his cigar — “Are you listening to me, Simon?” “Selling isn’t a game.” “I don’t think you’re up for this.” — to reinforce Simon’s own awareness of his failing. The memories keep intruding.

At one point during his miserable day, Simon stops in a diner and he’s surrounded — in the eatery and on the page — by other patrons talking, talking, talking about their lives, aspirations, opinions and gossip. Simon is desperately trying — belatedly — to create a life. They are living theirs.

Friday, July 23, 2010


I started adding chapter titles in my own adventure comic strip, Slipped, when I arrived at chapter 100 this past April. I was inspired by the titles I saw above the daily strips in an out-of-print copy of Arf: The Life and Hard Times of Little Orphan Annie 1935-1945 that I’d recently tracked down.

Chapter 114 is titled “Recollection or Confabulation?” In one panel the protagonist, Tyler Wilson, aka adventurer and thief the Scarlet Sparrow, says she writes for a football (soccer) newspaper in Paris. (It seemed, to me, like a good occupation for her.)

The problem is I tried to draw her eyes looking up and to her left, as they do when you’re trying to remember something. (She’s been time-traveling, so she needs to think for a moment to separate what’s occurred from what’s to come.)

But I saw in fact I’d drawn them going to her right — which is what happens when you’re lying.

I erased them and redrew, with her eyes now looking to the left. But the picture just didn’t look quite … right. And it occurred to me: For whatever reason, she’s lying.

So I did her eyes yet again, as you see them, up and to her right. She is intentionally misleading her listeners — and you and me. She isn’t a football writer, apparently. Or maybe she doesn’t remember what she did for a living before becoming the Scarlet Sparrow, so she’s improvising. As the psychology term indicates, Tyler’s confabulating.

This was not the first time my characters have dictated what happens in the strip.

Award-winning short-story writer David Means (author of the just-released The Spot, among other collections), in an interview I conducted with him a couple weeks ago for a freelance story I wrote for the Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper, admitted his characters often surprise him.

“They do things you don’t expect,” he agreed. But they don’t take over storylines, as some writers (me included — see this earlier post) have suggested. “It’s not magic. It’s controlled magic.”

Hmmm. Maybe. Let me just check with my Slipped characters to find what they have to say about this ….

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Ultimates

Giant Man to Son of Satan: “Are you really Satan’s son?”

The reply: “Are you on crack?”

I was delighted to find my stack of The Ultimates, series 1 and 2, just last week. While it’s true that after you move three times in 18 months you’re happy to relocate anything recognizable, I discovered these stories still packed their initial power.

Marvel Comics broke ground in its early days by setting its superheroes in the real world. What if people with super powers didn’t really get along? What if Spider-Man had to earn a living? Who covered the rent at the Baxter Building? What writer Mark Millar and illustrator Bryan Hitch did next, first with The Authority, then with The Ultimates, was take that notion and color it post-9/11.

Before, the Fantastic Four fought giant monsters in deserted districts of Manhattan (if there even ever were such areas). In The Ultimates, whole chunks of that heavily populated city — as well as LA, Chicago, Phoenix and the nation’s capitol — could be decimated.

Along with these grim times, and the pages’ black borders, anyone could be betrayed, maimed, tortured or killed in this Avengers updating. Giant Man a wife-beater? The Black Widow a traitor? Thor a deluded paranoid only imagines he’s the god of thunder? Yet Millar and Hitch (who also did the redesign of the TARDIS for the re-launch of Doctor Who, in 2005) pulled it all off with great panache and wit.

A bound Bruce Banner being thrown out of an airborne SHIELD helicopter so he’ll turn into the Hulk. Super-marksman Hawkeye dispatching armed villains with only his bloody, ripped-off fingernails as deadly projectiles. The Scarlet Witch taunting Loki by “increasing the odds of someone showing up to kick your ass” — then a cascade of lightning heralding the appearance of the god of mischief’s half-brother, Thor: “Looking for trouble, Loki?”

And, in the final panel of issue 13, at the end of series 2, a flashback to 1942: Sunny Steve Rogers, before he ships off for the Super Soldier project that turns him into dreary Captain America, gathers his girlfriend, Gail, into his arms and kisses her. A close-enough re-imagining of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous Life Magazine photo taken on V-E Day in Times Square.

Wonderful stuff.

Quicksilver to his sister, the Scarlet Witch: “Wanda, were you just flirting with that machine?”

Friday, July 16, 2010

Low Moon, Part 2

Jason uses pacing, and very little dialog, to convey his stories’, and his characters’, mood. One example: In the “Low Moon” story from which this collection takes its title, bad guy Bill McGill, newly arrived back in town, goes up the hotel stairs. In the next panel, he knocks on a door. In the third panel we see a woman standing in the open doorway. In the fourth, she says, “Well, look what the cat dragged in.”

Another example: In the upper-left panel, the sheriff leaves his office. In panel two, he’s walking along the street. The third panel has him going through a doorway, his back to us. The fourth panel shows him standing still, arms at his side, silently facing a chess set — his inescapable destiny in his upcoming confrontation with Bill McGill.

For a faster-moving narrative, the artist could have used only panels two and four in both these examples. We’d still understand what’s going on, filling in the blanks with our imaginations. But Jason’s tight control of that speed tells us he’s building to something.

Read my earlier post on this book here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Quitter

Graphic novel and comic book writer Harvey Pekar died yesterday at the age of 70. His persona probably wouldn’t have allowed him to admit much of anything good ever happened to him.

The final panel of 2005’s The Quitter, illustrated by Dean Haspiel, shows the worried author, in tight closeup and looking directly at us: “I’ve always dreamed of being able to relax and feel trouble-free for long stretches of time. I’m 65 now. Will it ever happen?”

But good things did happen.

One the most fortuitous events would have to be his becoming friends with Robert Crumb, who encouraged Pekar’s comics writing and who lent his own mastery to illustrate some of the Clevelander’s work.

Pekar’s first collection, American Splendor, won the American Book Award in 1987. A few years later the book was made into a sad, charming and intelligent movie starring Paul Giamatti, as Pekar, and Hope Davis, as his wife Joyce Brabner.

His graphic novel, Our Cancer Year, won the Harvey Award in 1994.

Add to that the large number of readers, fans and would-be comics writers he inspired.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Low Moon, Part 1

While Norwegian cartoonist Jason’s stories are unremittingly downbeat, he certainly manages to evoke sympathy with his blank-eyed (think Little Orphan Annie), stringbean-like dog and duck characters.

In Low Moon, two of his stories come straight from the movies, tales of men with their backs to the wall. “Low Moon” retells High Noon, except with a chess showdown instead of gunfire, and “Proto Film Noir,” though it starts out with cavemen … or cave-dogs, I guess … becomes The Postman Always Rings Twice — except in this case the postman rings seven times.

(Yes, I know. I’ve intentionally misunderstood the meaning of the title of James M. Cain’s novel. I did it for the joke.)

But he leavens his tales with smart asides. In the title story, a deputy and a bartender — coffee drinks only, no alcohol — pass the time by naming the stars of The Magnificent Seven. (They get stuck and the sheriff has to supply the last name, Horst Buchholz.)

More in next post ….

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Shortcomings, Part 2

Adrian Tomine’s black-and-white illustrations in Shortcomings at times seem static … and I think that’s to a purpose.

Look at the protagonist’s girlfriend, Miko Hayaski, on page 19, after she and Ben have had another in what likely has been a series of low-grade disappointments (not quite at the energy level of an argument) throughout their relationship. She leans against the wall, in her underwear, and asks Ben if he wants to go to bed. The space behind her — presumably their bedroom — is in complete darkness.

He replies he’s not tired. She smiles, and says, “Well, we don’t have to go to sleep right away.” She looks soft and vulnerable, but willing. Her meaning is abundantly clear.

Still Ben declines, contending weakly he has some newly arrived DVDs to watch.

The next panel shows Miko, dark hair, white T-shirt, against a blank white wall. She’s frowning, shoulders now slumped, defeated, and we can’t really tell if she’s looking at Ben or at the floor. Not that it matters now.

In the next panel, she’s turned away, walking back into the bedroom, alone. Back into the darkness.

Read my first post on this book here.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Shortcomings, Part 1

I got so caught up in the angst of Ben Tanaka, the cranky protagonist of Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings, a collection of 2004-2007 stories from his comic book, Optic Nerve, I missed the big clue — even though Ben himself didn’t.

He sees a series of artsy photos of his girlfriend, who’s allegedly been on an internship in New York City for the past few months. He doesn’t announce he knows the pictures were taken back in California — that is to say, before Miko arrived in New York, and therefore her relationship with the photographer began then, too — until the book’s climax.

And I thought, wait, how did he figure that …? Then he tells her, and us. So I flipped back a couple chapters. Then another. And I saw it, too.

Then I realized the clue also is all over the book’s cover, front and back.

Very clever.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Neil Gaiman

An amazing confluence: Neil Gaiman announced he’s completed his Doctor Who TV script — an award-winning comic-book, short-story and children’s-book writer (top prizes from both this country and Britain) penning a story for my all-time favorite TV show.

You can see Gaiman talk about The Graveyard Book, his love for the horror in the comic books he read as a child, and how he doesn’t worry about about being taken seriously as a writer here, on the BBC site.