It’s September, and what better way to mark back to school season than with a little bit of mind-rotting comic bookery? We’ll try to keep the grey matter melting to a minimum with the following selection. We’ve got two bits of autobiographical excitement, some cardboard-come-to-life for the kids and something for the omnipotent cosmic deity in your life. Also: calendars!
Gabrielle Bell: The Voyeurs (Uncivilized Books)
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Gabrielle Bell without a sketchbook in her hand. Such things are, naturally, common accessories for indie cartoonists, but Bell seem to don hers like a pair of eyeglasses, as though the world might be headache-inducing and blurry without them. Her autobio strip “Lucky” is the fruit of those sketches, and The Voyeur is the bunching of those fruits, as ever with Bell, at its best when the lines between mundane realities and magical realisms become ever more entangled, the further one ventures into a story.
No better when the cartoonist relates an attempt to adapt Valerie Solanas' infamous SCUM Manifesto into sequential form, unraveling into a tail of adult movie theaters and Japanese assassins, related by Bell’s infinitely interesting mother. Not that the realities themselves are entirely mundane, of course -- particularly in the wake of the artist’s rise to an indie comics celebrity of sorts. There’s the stormy relationship with filmmaker Michel Gondry, the mind-numbing trip to San Diego Comic Con (as highlighted in the first iteration of this nascent column) and the mattress-on-the-floor living that comes with living on an artist’s paycheck in the Big Apple. It’s simultaneously nakedly honest and whimsically untrue (like getting called out by Gondry for skinny dipping merely for the sake of comics fodder), because being a voyeur doesn’t always mean you can trust what you see.
Doug TenNapel: Cardboard (Graphix)
The guy who created Earthworm Jim gets a lifetime pass, so far as I’m concerned. The potential for such laurel resting hasn’t done much to slow Doug TenNapel’s output over the past few years, however. As per usual, the artist’s latest makes no effort to brush off his customary darkness for the benefit of a younger audience, constructing a strange and gritty sort of world through an oversized cardboard box. TenNapel does, however, happily revel in some cliches to get there. There’s a winking nod to the mysterious magic salesman typified by the likes of Gremlins and an origin story that owes more than a little to Pinocchio and possibly The Indian in the Cupboard.
And yes, the kid gets to be a hero here, along with his loving, if deeply-flawed father and the selfless animate cardboard boxer. TenNapel brings this all to a head in an adventurous climax that unfolds in a self-replicating cardboard universe, and judging from the complex cartoony characters rendered in his scratchy inks, he clearly enjoyed drawing ever minute of it.
Jesse Jacobs: By This Shall You Know Him (Koyama Press)
But cardboard worlds has nothing on the blue and purple dreamscapes conjured up by Jesse Jacobs, constructions of complex geometric shapes and winding organic matter, where primitive humans and floating space gods struggle independently with concepts of creation and destruction at what appears to be the dawning of a new universe. It’s a grotesque and playful, which struggles at every level of Jacobs’ broad evolutionary scope -- beings are manifested out of nothing and cave people learn that hard taught biblical lesson of not smashing your friend in a head with a blunt object.
It demands a re-reading and a re-reading after that, and then maybe the whole thing starts to make clear sense. I can’t say for sure yet, as I’m only on the second go-round -- but if you beat me to number three, definitely let me know.
Carol Tyler: You’ll Never Know Book Three: Soldier’s Heart (Fantagraphics)
Eight years and 350 pages later, Carol Tyler concludes her trilogy, the tale of a family impacted by a soldier’s service in the second World War. In this third book, Tyler takes her father on a road trip across seven states to visit the newly constructed WWII memorial, continuing to weave dad and daughter’s lives in a narrative told through scrapbooked memories from diaries, war journals and more traditional means. It’s a touching and heartbreaking examination of the ways in which individual journeys ultimately affected multiple generations of families.
Tyler wraps the tale with the heartfelt story of her arrival at the monument. It’s a nice piece of closure for the three-volume memoir, though, as the epilogue clearly notes, as long as we’re still kicking (as both her parents are at the close of the book, having made it into their 90s), the story’s never quite complete.
Kate Beaton: Hark! a Vagrant Calendars (Drawn & Quarterly)
Is it 2013 yet? I’m getting pretty antsy staring at these two Kate Beaton calendars firmly entombed in their shrink wrap. Three months left to go, and I’m already considering a pre-emptive strike on next year, to get a sneak peak at 12 months worth of historic hilariousity, like my friend in elementary school who never failed to finish the advent calendar by December 5th. Gonna go down to bookstore and pick up some deeply discounted 2012s to tide me over.
Brian Heater (@bheater ) is a senior editor at Engadget and the founder of indie comics site, The Daily Cross Hatch. His writing has appeared in Spin, The Onion, Entertainment Weekly and The New York Press. He hosts several podcasts and shares an apartment in Queens with a rabbit named Sylvia.