Nonfiction Review: “Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists” by Hillary Chute

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RECOMMENDED outsidethebox

As the medium of comics continues to grow in both artistic legitimacy and creative diversity, the question arises of how we will handle an inclusive definition of such an eclectic collection of forms. Does an open and encompassing parameter for graphic narrative allow us to recognize works such as Jim Davis’ Garfield strips and the latest run of Marvel’s X-Force series as using the same language, albeit for entirely different purposes and audiences? Can the same terms we use to discuss Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel “From Hell” work for examining Theodor Geisel’s propaganda cartoons?

It’s because of these questions that University of Chicago professor Hillary Chute is becoming such a valuable voice in the suddenly-no-longer-ironic field of comics scholarship. “Outside the Box” is her third book on comics, following “Graphic Women” and her collaborative work with Art Spiegelman on “MetaMaus.” Chute is such a unique voice largely because she never read comics until well into her graduate school studies, where she experienced Spiegelman’s “Maus” and was immediately taken by it.

As a result, her passion for the medium comes not from any nostalgia but from a scholarly appreciation and understanding. Read the rest of this entry »

Comics Review: “Sex Criminals, Volume I TP: One Weird Trick” by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

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RECOMMENDED sex-criminals-vol-01-releases

It’s a story as old as civilization itself: A young woman who stops time when she has an orgasm meets a guy with the same thing. Brought together by the whims of circumstance, they fall for each other, and in the throes of a new relationship start robbing banks.

Think “Tristan and Isolde” filtered through Philip K. Dick and you’ve got half of the idea.

The other half is a smart and sex-positive take on the romantic comedy. Suzie (she’s the girl) acts as the narrator for the series, bringing the smutty shenanigans and the sci-fi to a personal level. What makes her and Jon (he’s the guy) so compelling as a romantic pair is the sheer amount of honesty between them. It’s downright refreshing to see adults talking so frankly and intimately about their sexual histories, not as an arousing enticement but as an intimate disclosure. Past partners, masturbatory habits, even musical preferences are shared between them and with us.

It’s a bold approach to sexual comedy, and some of the best work by Matt Fraction (he’s the writer). Largely known as a prominent writer for Marvel Comics, one of his strengths is playing around with multiple levels of plot and mood. He knows when to place a joke about fleshlights and when to spin out lines of near-poetry, as when Suzie describes her first experience with post-climax timelessness: “I was enveloped in silence and color.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Zen of Zines: “King Cat” Reigns Supreme

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By Megan Kirby King-Cat 74

Today, the nineties are glorified as a golden era for independent publishing, a decade when every photocopier ran hot with the printing of punk-rock fanzines and weird-out mini-comics. A lucky few made it big, releasing polished graphic novels with big-name comics publishers. Most just got tired and left the days of staple-bound periodicals behind them.

Through decades of DIY publishing shifts, there’s been a stubborn constant: “King-Cat Comix and Stories,” a zine that John Porcellino has self-published since 1989, and which is released today through his own distro, Spit and a Half. Porcellino started “King-Cat” when he was in high school with simple line comics and hand-written stories about punk rock and mental health, along with tongue-in-cheek fantasy sequences. (One early issue was dedicated to Porcellino’s fictional love affair with Madonna). He often wrote about Illinois, exploring his hometown of Hoffman Estates and the suburbs around Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

Comics Review: “The Best American Comics 2013″ Edited By Jessica Abel, Matt Madden, Jeff Smith

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RECOMMENDED bestamericancomics

“The Best American Comics” is unusual in two respects. For one, it’s more egalitarian than any other volume of the Best American Series. Grant Snider’s introspective webcomics stand deservingly by Alison Bechdel’s excellent and complex graphic novel “Are You My Mother?” But alas, the comics content is less likely to stand alone. The pieces that work best in the 2013 edition are the ones that are either self-contained, like a daily newspaper strip, or make the reader want to rush out and buy the whole work.

Comics’ best attribute is their ability to tell simultaneous narratives with words and images. And they’re like any medium where words are secondary: there are people who groove with a song’s melody, and people who only care for lyrics. The excerpts from “Rachel Rising” and “Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller,” both with captions, had just enough story arc to make this reader pencil down their names for future, full-length purchase. Language-less strips have a special challenge, and less ways to clue the reader into the context. It’s easy to give up on them and just skip ahead while vaguely admiring the art. About one-fourth of Best American Comics feels like this, but a beautiful exception is “Grainne Ni Mhaille” by Colleen Doran and Derek McCullough, which tells an Irish immigrant family’s trials via Doran’s gorgeous super-hero style illustration. Read the rest of this entry »

Graphic Novel Review: “Hyperbole and a Half” by Allie Brosh

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RECOMMENDED hyperbole

Allie Brosh doesn’t post on her web comic Hyperbole and a Half regularly, so when she does it sends quivers through the Internet community. The format of her work is text, maybe a paragraph or two, followed by an illustration of utmost simplicity. Her neckless figures approximate the general form of a torso, with stick arms and legs that nevertheless entirely capture the depth and breadth of the human condition. Her stories are confessional, biographical, and hysterically funny. To this day, her story about moving across the country with two anxious dogs remains one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. Stories we love from online are preserved in the book for those of us who prefer our media on paper, as well as new chapters not available online.

More recently Brosh has written candidly about a debilitating depression she’s suffered and the various ups and downs she’s experienced trying to overcome it. She presents this information bravely and beautifully, with more than a little humor included. Read the rest of this entry »

Graphic Novel Review: “The Graphic Canon, Volume 3: From Heart of Darkness to Hemingway to Infinite Jest” edited by Russ Kick

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RECOMMENDED graphiccanon3

There is a Kathy Acker comic now.

With this third entry in Russ Kick’s acclaimed series of anthologies adapting works of literature into illustrated form, the most notorious work by America’s most controversial postmodern author, “Blood and Guts in High School,” exists in comics form.

I can stop writing reviews now. I have now everything I ever wanted out of Western literary culture.

All of which is what makes the Graphic Canon series so interesting as a concept. Adapting prose works into comics is nothing new, going back to the long-running “Classics Illustrated,” which for decades brought works of classical literature into a cheap and accessible format before closing down in 1971. It would briefly resurface in the early nineties with noteworthy artists such as Bill Sienkiewicz, P. Craig Russell, Jill Thompson and others, reflecting the tones and themes of the original stories with comparable artistic style and motifs. Read the rest of this entry »

Graphic Novel Review: “My Dirty Dumb Eyes” By Lisa Hanawalt

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RECOMMENDED my-dirty-dumb-eyes-cover

Many of Lisa Hanawalt’s cartoons are populated by clothed animals. Lizards in garter belts and leather jackets, high-heeled shoes and bikini tops. Cats in construction gear, or dogs riding airplanes in checkered shirt sleeves. In the universe of Hanawalt, animals express human vulgarities without compunction, but they also indulge in our unapologetic weaknesses—playing Angry Birds during a heart-to-heart, laying on the couch and watching movies all day, being a backseat driver.

Although fans of her work will already be familiar with some of the pieces in her debut book, “My Dirty Dumb Eyes,” the collection should not be ignored. It is gorgeous, highlighting her incredible coloration and bizarre but beautiful depictions. Most importantly, she’s hilarious. In an early “chapter,” What Do Dogs Want? a tennis-ball bride ranks highly, followed by two Pomeranians feasting on  a salt lick in the shape of human legs. A meal  of “dirty underwear on a bed of regurgitated grass, with cat poop reduction” does, indeed, sound perfect…for a dog. Read the rest of this entry »

Graphic Novel Review: “We Can Fix It: A Time Travel Memoir” by Jess Fink

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RECOMMENDED wcfi_cover_sm_lg

Over the last few decades, autobiography has risen in comics to become a genre to rival the four-color ubermenschen for diversity and abundance. For many of them it’s a chance for the author to explore their memories and examine those moments of their past that defined them. Every autobiographical cartoonist talks about the mistakes and letdowns of their past, but none of them do anything about it.

Until now.

Jess Fink’s new graphic novel “We Can Fix It: A Time Travel Memoir” is a double feature of science fiction and memoir, as the New York cartoonist travels back into her past with the aid of a time machine and a really awesome jumpsuit. Ostensibly it’s to offer advice to her younger selves, although she seems to spend an inordinate amount of time making out with them instead. Read the rest of this entry »

Gastronomic Comics: Taking Pictures of Food to New Levels

Comics/Graphic Novels/Cartoonists, Nonfiction 1 Comment »

dirtcandyBy Greg Baldino

We can’t stop taking pictures of our food.

Go online, go to any of the seven social media sites we all seem to be on right now. Food pictures, everywhere. You could almost make a case that the social media platform was engineered to enable us to pass around photos of the spinach salad with honey-roasted pecans, dried cranberries, Bosc pear, bleu cheese and honey Dijon dressing we had for lunch. When we’re using cutting-edge information technology backed by an international network of satellites and fiber optic cables to tell people what we had for lunch, that tells you something: it tells you we are living in an age of really good salads.

But it’s not just snapping a picture of our lunch and hashtagging that we made a grilled cheese with Humboldt Fog goat cheese. Our lives revolve around food. The whole root of human civilization is that if we band together it’s a lot easier to kill and cook a mastodon, and that by the firelight of dinner we discovered socializing and storytelling. The social connection of food meant we had something to share, whether it was memories of the day’s labor or a crust of bread.

So we take Instagrams of our crackers and share links to sausages. But that’s not enough for some, and this year has seen three exciting new graphic novels that take stories of our meals and pictures of our food to a new level. Read the rest of this entry »

Breaking Ground Again: The Second Resurrection of Samuel Delany

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By Greg Baldino Delany_encyc

There was a time when experimental science fiction could sell a million copies. It helped that at the time science fiction (having acquired a reputation just slightly better than that of pornography) was sold in cheap mass-market paperbacks off the spinning wire racks of grocery stores, pharmacies, newsstands and who knows where else. They were readily accessible and reasonably inexpensive; and though genre fiction might still have been seen as declassé by some, a slim paperback was easily concealed in a jacket pocket, or cradled in concealing hands on the morning commute.

The market changed, everything changed, and now you can no longer walk into a 7-Eleven and pick up a Samuel Delany novel for pocket change. Despite this, his work is both still relevant and celebrated. His groundbreaking science-fiction novel “Dhalgren” remains in print and was adapted for the stage in 2010. Authors from Neil Gaiman to Junot Diaz have cited him as an influence and inspiration. Delany spent two decades away from the genre that launched his literary reputation, but returned to science fiction last year with his novel “Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders,” which Roger Bellin of the Los Angeles Review of Books called “a book worthy of his career full of masterpieces—and a book that no one else could have written.” As philosophic as it is pornographic, the book chronicles the life of two gay men who, meeting in their late teens in 2007, forge an open and committed relationship that spans sixty-to-seventy years into the future. It is the first time a newly published Delany book has sat on the SF shelves since Knopf-Doubleday reprinted five volumes of his science fiction in stylish trade paperbacks back in the early 2000s. Read the rest of this entry »