Great Graphic Novels: Promethea, by Alan Moore

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

Promethea, by Alan Moore (and others)

Alan Moore is a literary titan whose medium happens to be comic books: deal with it. The fact is, Moore is positively Joycean in the way he packs layers of meaning into words and, unlike Joyce—or Pynchon, or Wallace—he has the whole playground of image to play with as well.

The substantial success Moore attained with his scripts for Watchmen, From Hell, V for Vendetta, and other titles—and the substantial disappointments he suffered as those graphic masterpieces were translated to the screen—both allowed him and drove him to focus on more insular, idiosyncratic work… one can almost hear him muttering, ‘make a movie of this you effing bastards,’ as he completed his pornographic masterwork Lost Girls, or the swirl of Cabala, sex magick, metaphysics, and superhero mythology comprising the work I extol here, Promethea.

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Great Graphic Novels: The Cereal Killings by James Sturm

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

The Cereal Killings by James Sturm

James Sturm is probably best known as the founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, a school dedicated to creating comics and as the artist and writer of Eisner -- winning comics like The Golem’s Mighty Swing. But it was his first Fantagraphics title, The Cereal Killings, that knocked me out.

Sturm created a parallel fantasy world populated by the beings that worked as kid cereal mascots. Sturm re-imagined beloved cereal mascots as anthropomorphized animal/humans who gather at the local bar to reminisce on the good old days of the cereal business. There’s Burt, a chain-smoking loudmouth rabbit, Snip, the ruthless elphin president of KelCog Cereal Company, and Carbunkle, the middle-aged agent who pitches new cereal ideas and represents his old friends. If you can picture a pugnacious fifty-year old Trix rabbit, an insulin-crashing Cuckoo Bird, and a DiggEm Frog with food issues, all with real-life problems of failing careers, petty jealousies and corporate intrigue, you’ve got the picture.

Sturm cuts between the present-day story line of a “cereal killer” with flashbacks of the “cerealebrities” in their early glory days. His art has a personal, expressive line that works well to communicate the rough edges and tough breaks in the lives of the aging mascots. Slick cereal box art and tv commercial storyboards are used as an effective foil and contrast with the gritty realities of martial stress, alcoholism, and death.

Says Sturm: “These characters function both as cultural icons and as individuals, real men and women with all the dreams, frailties and hungers that shape all our lives.”

And the business aspects of kid’s cereals are woven throughout: new brands are proposed, designs for premiums are evaluated, and healthiness of kid cereals is questioned. Here’s Schmedly the elephant with Carbunkle at the bar:

(By the way, think the story is exaggerating the “controversy” of a Crunch Berry? I refer you to a recent lawsuit: On May 21, a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California dismissed a complaint filed by a woman who said she had purchased "Cap'n Crunch with Crunch Berries" because she believed it contained real fruit. You can’t write this stuff!)

Each issue of The Cereal Killings has a familiar comic book format with additional short stories; mock cereal ads, full-page portraits, and letters to the editor. Great stuff! The comic ran for nine issues, ending in 1995.

Does Sturm ultimately pull it off, this parable of redemption in a cereal bowl? The fantastical conclusion uses dream imagery and leaves the final interpretation to the reader. I found it to be an engaging tale in an imaginative world.

Great Graphic Novels: Zap Comix #2

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

Zap Comix #2

I think it was 1969, so I was 11 or 12 years old. A conservative science teacher with a Marine-style buzzcut had just finished projecting an anti-drug exploitation film for us in class, in which teens were getting hit by cars and launching themselves from buildings as the result of bad acid trips. Just after this, Mr. Buzzcut excitedly announced that he would demonstrate to us what a burning marijuana cigarette smelled like, just so we'd know the odor and be able to avoid areas where it was present. He gathered all thirty students around as he lit up a colorless tablet. None of us could detect any sort of odor at all.

As they usually did for just about everyone who was subjected to them, these anti-drug presentations aroused my curiosity to try the real thing, consequences be damned.

That weekend, I hopped on my Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycle to scout out areas where I suspected longhairs would gather. Early one evening I detected an extremely fragrant scent outside a movie theater on Wilshire near La Cienega. Finally, I thought, I had experienced the real smell of "Mary Jane," pot, grass or whatever those exploitation films maintained was the current slang. Later, I discovered that particular odor was patchouli oil, a fragrance common to LA hippies. Continuing my search, I pedaled up Fairfax Avenue toward the strange Orthodox Jewish stores with fancy menorahs and gefilte fish, and on this block found a Free Press bookstore that emanated the strong hippie scent. Winding up my courage, I stepped through the hanging beads at the front door. Maybe, I thought, I would get lucky and ogle some dirty magazines.

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Great Graphic Novels: From Inside, by John Bergin

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

From Inside, by John Bergin

I am walking down a tunnel. No, it's the stairwell, the former stairwell. Its skeleton juts with unjoined charcoal ribs. I usually stay upstairs in the place where we used to lie next to each other and breathe.

Something important drew me down here. I remembered that sometime a message had come from Mark Frauenfelder, from Boing Boing. He wanted me to write about a graphic novel. The details elude me, the memory floats like a tiny grey cloud on the parched desert of my mind. I need a deluge. I have learned, though, to subsist on dew. There is no way to check email any more.

I push a pile of blackened books around with my burnt Docs, afraid to reach in with my hands. I don't remember when the fire happened. Maybe it is still happening.

The scorched tomes stir: Joel Peter Witkin's collection of Victorian death portraits, the title dissolved into the plasticky gloss of the book's cover. Marianne Wiggins' John Dollar, its spine worn off years ago. Jane Austen. Richard Kadrey. Colette. James Joyce. Edward Eager. Rumi. Susan Cooper. Lidia Yuknavitch. George Saunders.

George Saunders! I laugh, picturing the goats in Pastoralia and to laugh is such a good thing, I fish out the book with my hand. The book doesn't burn me. It simply disintegrates.

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Great Graphic Novels: Gods' Man, by Lynd Ward

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

My first experience of what I would call a graphic novel was this strange hardcover book I found when I was a kid on a sleepover. I couldn't sleep because I was allergic to the cats that kept climbing on top of me in the bed, so I went into the living room and started looking at their books. And I found a volume like nothing I had ever seen: an old, hardcover book with no words. It was the 1929 edition of a "novel in woodcuts" called Gods' Man, by Lynd Ward.

At first I thought it was a collection of pictures, until I began at the beginning and realized it was meant to be a story. I don't remember the plot so very well -- something about an artist fighting against internal, external, and metaphysical obstacles. But it impacted me in the epic way some other visual work of the early 1900's hit me, such as Metropolis or the big Napoleon movie. Or even some sort of Kurt Weill opera. Or Ibsen's Peer Gynt.

It's a hundred or so prints in thick black and white, and I didn't consider it a comic at the time -- just some strange artifact of an art form that no one else pursued. And only now does the graphic novel world seem developed enough to experiment with wordless, operatic narratives like this.

God's Man, by Lynd Ward

Great Graphic Novels: Carnet de Voyage, by Craig Thompsom

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

“This is not 'the Next Book', but rather a self-indulgent side-project -- a simple travel diary drawn while I was traveling through Europe & Morocco from March 5th to May 14th, 2004."

This is how Craig Thompson introduces Carnet de Voyage, his book between Blankets and Habibi and, hands-down, my favorite thing he’s done.

It’s a canny move, saying right up front that it’s not his “Next Book.” Blankets was a genre-busting success. It won comic awards & wound up on dozens of comic & non-comic “Must Read” lists. As a 500+ page coming of age/struggling with religion story, it was the “graphic novel” that non-comic readers loved. His next book, whatever it was, was guaranteed to be sensation, this time burdened with expectations of greatness.

So we’re told on page one not to expect anything. Totally unnecessary. It might not be the “Next Book” but it’s wonderful.

Carnet is a travel diary -- a one-day-at-a-time record of the places Thompson went, the people he met & the emotions he was feeling. Mostly he was feeling loneliness, as he’s just out of a relationship, in that phase where you’re still partially in it. Compounding the usual loss of a break-up is his ex-girlfriend’s (unexplained but seemingly serious) illness. So, alone & self-conscious of his loneliness, Thompson spends large parts of his trip achingly desperate to fall-in-love.

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Great Graphic Novels: From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

From hellIt only took me about five seconds to settle upon the graphic novel that has most successfully blown me away: From Hell by Alan Moore (writer) and Eddie Campbell (artist).

Clocking in at close to 600 pages, this is not a one-evening read, as too many graphic novels are. It is also not the world's loveliest artistic feast. The art is stark black and white scratchy pen-work and I have to say that Eddie Campbell's style is an acquired taste. But it perfectly suits Alan Moore's complex script about the Jack the Ripper killings in London in the 1880s.

There is plenty of blood spilled as the killings proceed, and the fact that it is all in black ink -- not red - helps maintain a certain aesthetic distance from the dirty deeds being done. I think of the book as being drawn in soot, which certainly defined late-Victorian London, where the famous fog was actually smog.

Long story short: Moore immersed himself in the various conspiracy theories about who Jack the Ripper really was and settled on an amalgamated premise that Jack was really the Queen's physician, William Gull, and the murders were part of a monstrous occult Masonic ritual. The truth was ostensibly covered-up by Masons in positions of power and justice was never rendered.

This is, I think, a preposterous premise, but it is an engrossing one, nevertheless, and if one just suspends disbelief and allows Moore to sweep one along on his dark horse-drawn carriage ride, there are hours of finely-nuanced entertainment to be had.

The movie version of From Hell, starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, was a telegraphed and watered down version of the story that Moore spins. It had its moments, particularly in capturing the spooky atmosphere of late nights in the East End, but if you even half-way enjoyed the movie, you owe it to yourself to read the original graphic novel.

(Various disclaimers: I became a Mason around the time that From Hell was first published, my wife was Matron of Honour at Alan Moore's and Melinda Gebbie's wedding in Northampton, UK, and we all remain friends. That said, I'd still stand by From Hell as a graphic novel masterpiece, even if I were not a Mason and didn't know Alan Moore from Joe Blow.)

From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

Great Graphic Novels: Ménage à Bughouse by Steve Lafler

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

Ménage à Bughouse by Steve Lafler

NewImageEveryone who is into comics knows what the acclaimed graphic novels are. I have most of 'em and I recognize that they are magnificent achievements. On the other hand I haven't read many of them all the way through because despite their greatness they wore me out or bummed me out or left me out in some other way... like Moby Dick did. I never could get through that indisputably great book.

And so I'm going to recommend a graphic novel that is great because it is good, solid and delivers in spades what I most enjoy in a comic book; a comfortable mastery of the form, fun, surprises, a story I can get into and a light touch. In short its the kind of book you can flop down on the couch with of an afternoon, lie back and enjoy.

It's Ménage à Bughouse by Steve Lafler, published by CO2 and available here.

Great Graphic Novels: Alan's War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

Alan's War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope, by Emmanuel Guibert

NewImageAs far as World War II stories go, Cope’s story is far from spectacular. Wonderfully so.

Expect none of the heroics or ego associated with traditional combat tales. Instead, welcome a sit down chat with a friend who will, frankly and intimately, carry you along through a soldier's attempt to find meaningful friendships and rich experience while navigating a tedious, banal, and rootless military career.

I know that may sound dreadful, but it is not.

Despite the limitless digital access that I have to folks, ideas and inspiration I find myself yearning for the same things Cope longed for 60+ years ago -- little bits of beauty and a good friend or two to share them with. This book is both beautiful and friendly. After a day of being hit from a million directions for hours on end with stimulus, it is soothing to retire into a world where aside from the rare letter, a man lives in simple engagement with his immediate and tactile environment and with his thoughts.

The translation from French is highly conversational and Guibert’s technique of painting the page with water and allowing ink to bleed through the wet fibers result in illustrations that are loose yet elegant, cloudy and clear at the same time. Like memory.

Here’s a video of Guibert crafting a portrait of Alan Cope.

[Cory also reviewed this in 2008! -- Mark]

Alan's War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope

Great Graphic Novels: Fungus the Bogeyman, by Raymond Briggs

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

Fungus the Bogeyman, by Raymond Briggs

NewImageHemet, California, Summer 1983. I was ten, my brothers and I were spending a few days with my grandparents. My grandma, in an attempt to keep us entertained against the high desert doldrums, took us to the local Pic N Save to buy a toy. I ended up in the book aisle with a remainder copy of Fungus the Bogeyman, by Raymond Briggs. Nothing could have been more foreign and alluring to my young mind.

Fungus is a green, six-fingered, triple-nippled, Bogeyman in the classic sense. He and his ilk are the things that go bump in the night, the boil engenderers, the stealers of blankets, and the cause of every other midnight nuisance. Briggs, perhaps best known for the wordless children’s book The Snowman, doesn’t just show us a day in the life of a typical Bogeyman, he describes and diagrams their subterranean physiology, customs, and culture in a way lesser artists would avoid.

The pages nearly drip with slime and muck. Even the endpapers look filthy. Upon preparing for another night of work, Fungus the Bogeyman takes a deep whiff of his disgusting trousers. “Mmmm! These really stink!” he exclaims. One page describes Bogeyman bicycles (a tank of filthy water beneath the seat aids in propulsion, a "bogeybag" up front allows the gentle wafting of noxious odors for the pleasure of the cyclist) against the backdrop of Fungus pedaling uphill to the surface, deep questions weighing down upon his psyche. On another page we see Fungus, still brooding on the meaning of his slimy existence, reading to his son from Where to Watch Drycleaners: A Field Guide to Surface Life, complete with a few excerpted diagrams. A “Drycleaner” is the bogey name for us surface dwellers, since we prefer both dryness and cleanliness.

In spite of our hero’s ongoing existential crisis, Briggs revels in every hilarious diagram, footnote, and lovingly crafted historical tangent. He even takes a moment or two to remind us that a Bogeyman could be headed, at this very moment, to WHERE YOU LIVE. Briggs loves the world he has created, and it’s as infectious as mildew. Mildew also happens to be the name of Fungus’ wife.

At ten, I didn’t think much about what it meant to be a grown up, let alone what people did at work all day. Fungus gave me a peek into life on the other side of childhood, and, even though I knew my future didn’t hold too much in the way of beds full of slugs or watching pigs stick to a wall for entertainment, it raised some questions. Would I get boils? What is a boil? Would I hate my job? Was everything drudgery, uncertainty, and ennui? I sure hoped not. But in the end, maybe it wasn’t so bad. After all, Fungus had a nice Bogey family, two slimy, green, hairless cats, and was the product of a rich and gooey heritage, even if he didn’t see it.

Fungus the Bogeyman

ElfQuest and the secret history

The message of Elfquest is not only a creation myth but the eternal return: a story of magical beings raised by wolves and tied to intergalactic science fiction. One can only imagine the creators have a drinking buddy in the Illuminati.

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Great Graphic Novels: The Collected Sam and Max: Surfin' the Highway, by Steve Purcell

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

The Collected Sam and Max: Surfin' the Highway by Steve Purcell

NewImageThe Collected Sam and Max is a touching Holocaust narrative in which Purcell depicts the Jews as Sam the dog, and the Germans as a rabbit-esque creature named Max. Just kidding. It’s about a vigilante animal duo who excel at violence and friendship.

This pair of anthropomorphic “freelance police” have been running amok in our culture for twenty-five years now, hijacking a slew of different media formats for the enjoyment of mankind. Many fans were first introduced to the twosome by way of LucasArts’ 1993 point-and-click PC game, Sam and Max Hit the Road, which is widely considered one of the greatest things to come out of the golden age of interactive adventure. Four years later they earned an even bigger following by starring in their own Saturday morning cartoon. But anyone wishing to experience the essence of Sam and Max must look to their comic book roots because their early appearances are pure Purcell -- Steve that is, and thanks to the magic of independent publishing he had total creative freedom.

Readers of this edition will find that the events are a bit less cohesive than say, the Watchmen series. This collection of stories not only comes from different issues, it also spans five different publishers, not counting a dozen strips that were created for the LucasArts newsletter.

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Great Graphic Novels: West Coast Avengers, by Steve Englehart and Al Milgrom

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

West Coast Avengers, by Steve Englehart and Al Milgrom

West Coast Avengers 022 cbz  Page 19TIME magazine chose to put the money quote from Richard Schickel's review of Raiders Of The Lost Ark right on the cover:

"A MOVIE MOVIE!"

Was there any need to say more? It's a perfect review, in three simple words. "Raiders" broke absolutely no new ground whatsoever. It was old-fashioned at its core. But it was engineered to hit every button that gives us pleasure as moviegoers. Here is a movie that reminds us of why we love movies.

West Coast Avengers -- the original 1984 four-issue limited series and the first 42 or so issues of the monthly that followed -- was "A COMIC BOOK COMIC BOOK!" And that's why it's one of my favorite series ever. It anticipated Marvel's current vogue for spinning off a popular logo into multiple franchises. The Whackos were formed when the New York team's leader decided to create a Los Angeles-based team, designated to handle "all threats west of the Mississippi."

It turned out that Earth and the Universe were both located somewhere of Indianapolis. It seemed as though every threat that affected the whole planet and every battle that involved warring alien factions was handled by the original East Coast team in their own book. The West Coast Avengers tended to tackle more manageable, down-to-earth problems. Things like an enormous walking, talking totem pole, and an organized crime syndicate whose leaders dress in bulky costumes representing the signs of the zodiac.

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Great Graphic Novels: Sazae-San, by Machiko Hasegawa

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

Sazae-San, by Machiko Hasegawa

Sazae 930px 1


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Great Graphic Novels: It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, by Seth

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, by Seth

NewImageAn old fashioned looking guy (wearing a vintage overcoat, a hat and a pair of round eyeglasses) weaves his way through the snow to a second-hand bookshop in Ontario. He is obsessed with comic books, gag cartoons and newspaper strips of the past. Everything he does reminds him of situations and characters conjured up by Charles Schultz, Dr. Seuss, Hergé and other classic cartoonists. Fantasy merges with reality. The past merges with the present. Art merges with life. This artist can’t help himself. He collects the good old stuff.

It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken by Seth (a.k.a. Gregory Gallant) is dedicated to his mom Violet who repeated those words often. She didn’t invent the phrase; it has been around for a while. In fact, artist Gene Byrnes drew a cartoon called It's a Great Life If You Don't Weaken from 1915 to 1919 for the New York Evening Telegram and the phrase was a rallying cry for American soldiers during the first World War.

The title of the book has an air of melancholy about it, as does the main character’s habit of mulling over things. He thinks too much. Seth drew himself as the protagonist and we are privy to his thoughts (this book is written in the first person). Clearly nostalgic for the comfortable little things of his childhood, he doesn’t like change. Change depresses him. He likes the worn-down look of old things. He is annoyed by change and he is annoyed by people. He lets us know exactly how he feels. Seth’s memories of childhood moments are “sealed in amber” like his mom’s house and feel “safe” to him like the cardboard boxes he used to crawl in as a kid.

As I sit there reading this book (on my front porch under the butternut tree), I flash back to huge stacks of dog-eared Archie and Little Lulu comics. I see myself rocking back and forth on my grandmother’s porch swing, sucking on hard candies and reading those comics. Every so often, I would squint outside at my grandfather, working in his sunny rose garden. Life was good. I never imagined that the scene would ever change or that the house would one day be sold. Golden memories “sealed in amber,” as Seth would say.

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