Friday, November 13, 2009

Review - Stuck Rubber Baby

Stuck Rubber Baby
by Howard Cruse
1996 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album: New

There are two relatively recent events that authors have taken up as a kind of lazy man's way to importance: the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. You can almost hear them say, "My book is about a Very Important Subject™ so it doesn't matter if the plot is generic, the characters paper thin, and my treatment of the Very Important Subject™ a shallow parody of the actual event." I hate those books and movies; treating an event that left its scars on history in a cartoonish manner shouldn't be a free pass.

Stuck Rubber Baby isn't one of those books. It's set in the deep south during the Civil Rights Movement and the main characters get tied up in events of the day and at the same time the book isn't about those themes. It is the story of a young, gay man finding himself in every way possible. There's a scene at the March on Washington but it's not the climax of the book. There is no denouement about how race relations changed and the protagonist was at the center of it. Howard Cruse could have taken the easy way out and rode the coattails of history but instead he created an impressive novel that uses the history as a way to color the changes that the protagonist undergoes.

Toland is a young man who lives in a fictional college town in the deep south during the early 60's. He finds himself attracted to men but is determined to live what he views as a normal life. As his circle of friends widens he becomes exposed to some of the fringe social elements of the time and he grows close to a politically active woman.

Cruse avoids going the easy way with his story in Stuck Rubber Baby and that makes it a gripping read. It's told as a flashback so the reader knows where Toland will end up and at the same time there is the question hanging in the air if he could make a relationship with a woman work. At the same time Cruse repeatedly makes the point that while Stuck Rubber Baby is Toland's story the universe does not revolve around Toland. He's not the only person dealing with the complications of relationships and other people's problems weave in and out.

The way that Cruse presents these personal stories makes it clear that this is a book about a gay man's awakening set in the civil rights movement rather than a book about the civil rights movement starring a gay man. So the sequence involving a sit in and riot is really about how Toland becomes directly involved instead of standing at the periphery as some of his friends do.

Cruse draws some impressively expressive faces through Stuck Rubber Baby. You won't have any trouble at all telling them apart. He uses a kind of pointillist (for lack of a better word) shading that I didn't care since it looked like static to my eyes rather than the rounding effect that he was going for. Still I think the quality of the storytelling in the art outweighs any negative I had.

Stuck Rubber Baby is a better book than the subject matter would suggest. Cruse touches on things that have been run into the ground by worse artists but he does a much better job with both his themes of sexual awakening and the civil rights movement than most. And that makes Stuck Rubber Baby well worth reading.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Review - Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid On Earth

Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid On Earth
by Chris Ware
1996, 2000 Eisner Winner for Best Continuing Series
1996, 2001 Eisner Winner for Best Coloring
2000 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album: New
2001 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album: Reprint
1996, 1997, 2001 Eisner Winner for Best Production Design

How's that for a list of awards? This story ran for several years in Ware's Acme Novelty Library where the individual issues racked up a few more awards of their own.

One of the major reasons I took my odd hobby of reading all of these award winning books was to give myself a reason to hunt down and read some of the acclaimed works that I never got around to. That was the case with Jimmy Corrigan which I had seen on lists of "The Best Graphic Novels" and knew that Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library series was held in high esteem but for some reason I never read it myself. I went through a full range of reactions as I read the book and once I reached the end I was left with the conclusion that Jimmy Corrigan is an exception work that I never want to read again.

Jimmy Corrigan is a man in a bland job with no friends. His only regular human contact is with his overbearing mother. Jimmy's father abandoned his mother before he was born so when he is contacted by his father Jimmy travels to meet him. Running along side this story is the life of Jimmy's grandfather as a little boy watching the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 under construction.

The first thing that I noticed about Jimmy Corrigan is how well designed it is. The cover with a dust jacket that unfolds to be even more complex lead into the nearly microscopic details that fill the inside cover. Once you reach the comic itself it plays with exotic layouts and complicated designs. Unfortunately these design choices often come at the expense of readability; there's many times where the panel order is completely unclear and it matters. It initially struck me as a book intended to be looked at rather than read.

As I got further in I was struck by how brutal the narrative was. These are not pleasant characters. Jimmy is an emotionally closed man who gets lost in his own twisted (and yet somehow bland) fantasies. His father is a vile bigot who brags about the children he has abandoned. His grandfather might get to be the most down to earth but still we see mostly the petty cruelties of children. Ware sets up characters who I found myself pitying more than loathing.

So Jimmy Corrigan starts with an almost random narrative about people who I didn't really want to read about. It made those early pages a slog. Then about a third of the way through things change. Ware finds his narrative feet and starts assembling a story out of the disjointed pieces he had. The afterward states that this was originally a comic strip in a weekly paper even before he compiled it into the Acme Novelty Library series which may account for some of that. No matter the cause what had started as an unreadable mess became a stronger story.

Then an even more amazing transformation occurred toward the end. Ware found the good in his characters, the diamond underneath the broken human beings. There's a moment that forms the emotional climax of the book in my view where Jimmy finally reacts that's incredibly powerful given what Ware had built up before.

I think that this is a beautifully designed book even if the page layouts are sometimes unclear. Ware structures his forms around heavy, confining horizontal and vertical lines. There is little in the way of organic curves or even angles other than ninety degrees in the images and never in the panel borders. It's a design aesthetic that works very well for the story of human isolation that Ware is telling.

If I had been Jimmy Corrigan in individual issues I don't know if I could have waited six years to get to that point however taken as one complete work it was striking. I never want to be pulled over the broken glass of the story again but at the same time I'm glad that I did read it. I started out hating it and lost to what people saw in it, then found myself impressed with Ware's ability to get his emotional reaction though still not liking the book, and finally at the end of it all he won me over.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Review - Understanding Comics

Understanding Comics
by Scott McCloud
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Comic Related Book

I was poking through my shelves looking for my copy of Understanding Comics so that I could have it in front of me as I write this review and it was nowhere to be found. Not filed with the Scott McCloud books, not shuffled into in the indy books section, not lost among the wall of trade paperbacks. I couldn't find it in the pile of books by my nightstand or in the massive pile that accumulates around my computer. As it turns out my brother who has been living with me while he goes to college lent it to his girlfriend in order to help her (to steal the title) understand comics.

Now besides the obvious familial conflict this brings home the strength of Understanding Comics. It is not only the definitive guide to the medium, it is also approachable enough for those whose only experience with comics are in the newspapers. When it was first released I gave a copy to someone interested in graphic novels as an introduction. It's not just for newcomers either as it breaks down the medium in a way that even those who have read comics for years can appreciate.

McCloud has created a technically deep work about comics and presented it as a comic book. It's an intuitive leap that's so obvious in retrospect that it's shocking no one had done it before. He spends a lot of time on iconography and representative images which makes his using a caricature of himself as the guide so recursive you'll go cross-eyed if you think about it too hard.

He starts by defining exactly what comics are which is a more difficult process than you would think. It's followed by a side trip to the history of the medium as it flickered at the edges of art for all of human history until it finally came together in the past hundred years. Once the introduction is over McCloud gets into the nitty-gritty of representative images, the complications of pacing, how artistic style changes everything, and the artistic process.

Understanding Comics is a very philosophical book. It could almost work under the title "Understanding Communication and Art". Obviously the focus is on how comics communicate and form art but McCloud establishes a basis for readers to comprehend that in a larger context. I've never encountered anyone breaking down these concepts better.

Artistically the book has a cartoony style that works perfectly for the purpose of illustrating the topic at hand. A more complicated or detailed art style for the essays would have been distracting and McCloud is adapt at mixing in greater detail when necessary to make the point. McCloud uses a very simple design for himself creating a very likable lecturer. The drawings are not going to impress anyone though for this book that's for the best.

I don't have a single bad thing to say about Understanding Comics. If I had to pick a single comic for anyone to read this would be it though that's because I think it would convince people to look for more comics. Even if you think you know comics well enough that the book would be redundant I still highly recommend it for the fresh perspective it brings. McCloud's work is as close to perfect as you'll find.