Thursday, February 18, 2010

Review - The Left Bank Gang and The Last Musketeer

The Left Bank Gang
by Jason
2007 Eisner Winner for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material

The Last Musketeer
by Jason
2009 Eisner Winner for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material

There are several reasons why I'm pairing these books together rather than giving them each a turn in the spotlight. They're both extremely short, they're both from the same creator, and they both have a similar style in storytelling. The art style is identical in both with their animal headed people and rigid panel structure. They're also both absolutely terrific.

My favorite of the two (and it's a close thing) is The Left Bank Gang. It depicts Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound as struggling comic book artists in early 20th century Paris. Most of them are having money troubles when Hemingway comes up with a plan for a large heist. Zelda Fitzgerald gets wind of the plan and then things go badly.

The Last Musketeer is a pulp adventure romp where Athos is the last person to wear the uniform of the Musketeers four hundred years after the end of the novels. When Mars invades Paris he travels to the red planet to fight back even though he stands alone. Once there he finds a princess who is more capable than the men around her and willing to help stop the invasion, an emperor who is too bored for his own good, and an old enemy waiting for a showdown.

I'm going to start with The Last Musketeer since that's the one that I have the least to say about it. That's because while it is a charming mash up of Dumas and Flash Gordan there's nothing more to it than that. Athos confronts some Martians in the anachronistic way of a French gentleman, they fight, and then cut to an interlude before things repeat. This is appropriate for the homage Jason is creating but the impression I'm left with at the end is "Well that was fun."

The Last Musketeer also a funny book. Athos's mindset is stuck in the seventeenth century so his reaction to scifi tropes like an evil robot is amusing. The princess is set up in a traditional pulp role where she should be the clinging damsel who betrayed her father for the love of the hero; instead she's a no-nonsense, tough woman who has no time being kept in that role. And the villains seem to be just playing their their required part even though they're not really happy about it.

The Left Bank Gang, on the other hand, starts off in a straightforward method but then when the heist starts splits in over half a dozen viewpoints of the events where no one has the whole story. Suddenly there's seven interwoven narratives being told one at a time and each one reveals just a little bit more. They're all complete from their own perspectives but the they make up something greater when combined. Jason is masterful in his use of this technique and it made the last half of The Left Bank Gang extremely engaging.

I also had a lot of fun with the reimagining of early twentieth century authors into comic book artists. The humorous parts of the book tie into that theme. If you have a broad familiarity with their lives then it adds an extra layer to the story.

The best word I can describe the art with is rigid. Every character is stiff as a board with limited movement. Every page is a nine panel grid. Everything is hard edged. These are not beautiful looking books but the artwork serves its purpose.

One of the things that I like the most about my hobby is that every so often I find some writer who is so intriguing that I want to read more from them. I had never read anything by Jason before these books and now I want to read a lot more of his books. They're entertaining and charming and that's more than enough reason for me to recommend them.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Review - Black Hole

Black Hole
by Charles Burns
2006 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album - Reprint

There are some very heavy handed metaphors in Black Hole at its center (or singularity if I want to go for my own heavy handed metaphor). Burns is trying to tie some big ideas together and it had potential to be interesting since he does a fine job at capturing the self-destructive youth culture. Unfortunately it never gelled for me; it felt like Burns never got around to actually making any of the points that he was groping toward.

Black Hole is set in a 1970's where a sexually transmitted disease is running rampant through the youth. The disease transforms those infected in different ways; one boy gains an extra mouth on his chest, another sheds her skin each night, and another woman has grown a tail. The premise itself has quite a bit of potential. A condition that marks sexually active teens can be used in a lot of different ways. And Burns doesn't use it beyond the basic level of a metaphor. The visibly marked children are out of sight and go to live in the woods away from society.

There's a girl who loses her virginity to an infected boy and she wants to hide her condition from her parents. She runs away from home and tries to sort out her feelings for the boy. Another boy has a crush on her and finds his feelings confused when he starts lusting after a college going woman who is also infected.

Black Hole is completely in the mold of the standard indy comic. It's about teenagers who happen to live in the same place and at the same time when the author was a teenager. It's a story of sexual discovery and coming of age. It also features it's fair share of hallucinatory dream sequences. The major plot elements that set it apart wind up being completely downplayed.

This isn't to say that Burns does a bad job with Black Hole. He does capture the perspective of lost and confused teenagers well. While I didn't like any of his characters with one exception I understood them. They were kids groping with responsibility and running from it. Their petty snipes at each other are part of their childishness. I didn't like them or even was particularly interested in them but that was not the fault of Burns's characterization.

Not coincidentally the character I liked was the woman with a tail who was really the only adult in the story; there are other characters over eighteen but she's the only one that I would call an adult. She came across as a lost and confused woman stuck in a bad situation. Unfortunately Burns wound up giving her the worst character development possible for a woman both in how pathetically cliche it's become in comics and how it reduces a character. It was unnecessary since she was a strong character without being given this motivation.

The artwork in Black Hole never excited me. It isn't that it's bad; it's perfectly reasonable. The best portions are the dream sequences where Burns's artwork has a liquid style that just blends images into one another. Otherwise his heavy lines and forms just didn't catch my interest.

While I may not have liked Black Hole I could definitely understand where it found its audience. If you like those coming of age stories then I have read a lot worse than this (some of which I've reviewed for this blog). On the other hand if you're as tired of these subjects as I am then it's not for you. Burns could have explored what happens to teens when the signs of sexual activity are obvious but wound up abandoning that concept for a fairly standard story.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Review - One! Hundred! Demons!

One! Hundred! Demons!
by Lynda Barry
2003 Eisner Winner Best New Graphic Album

Here's three quick facts about Lynda Barry and the kind of book One! Hundred! Demons! is for you:

1. It's a book where the author felt the need to include three exclamation points in the title. It's obviously there but it's the kind of thing that might come across as just an oddity outside of context.

2. She coins the word "autobifictionalography", possibly without irony. The word itself is bad enough but splitting a root as part of her portmanteau makes my eye twitch.

3. She randomly switches between cursive and block lettering. And I mean randomly. It's not for emphasis, structure, or clarity. At some points she switches midword. And one time switches back and forth twice in the same word.

These are microscopic nitpicks but they speak a lot to the tone of the book. It's all about the author trying to be cute and clever and coming across as annoying. One! Hundred! Demons! is a collection of strips about Barry's early life where she imparts trite life lessons into the anecdotes and tells us things like, "What's infinity minus all the songs in the world? The ones you listened to, the ones she listened to, the ones you sang together that day. Do you believe in magic? Yes or no?" Each image contains a caption that long and often that incoherent. It took me almost a week to get through the book because my eyes kept glazing over.

One! Hundred! Demons! is a collection of webcomics originally published at so there isn't any storyline. There are just about twenty strips (not One! Hundred!) that run around eight pages each. And each page is a simple two square panels where most of that is taken up by the caption. The closest thing to a theme is that most of them deal with Barry's childhood and teenage years.

As you might guess from that sample above Barry's writing is painful. The stories she chooses to tell about herself aren't any better. There's the time she took LSD in order to impress a guy she had a crush on. Or the time she left a friend behind to hang out with the cool crowd. These are the exact same stories that everyone tells about their youth and Barry tells these stories poorly.

Adding a final insult the art is essentially doodles. Don't expect any storytelling in the art since there isn't a single instance of panels flowing together. There are interstitial blocks that look like someone practiced pressing craft stores into their scrapbook. This is an ugly book on a design level and with the drawings.

Needless to say I hated One! Hundred! Demons! with a passion. It's an unreadable, hideous mess. It was painful to read and no matter what I looked at it didn't make things better. I cannot find a single positive thing to say about it.