Friday, March 5, 2010

Review - Exit Wounds

Exit Wounds
by Rutu Modan
2008 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album - New

I can acknowledge the technical craft in Exit Wounds. The art is fine, the story is structured well. And yet I wound up not liking it. The impression I was left with at the end was that I just didn't care for it and I couldn't really put my finger on why. It took quite a bit of soul searching and I think that it comes down to the story that Modan was telling.

A middle aged taxi driver in Tel Aviv gets a call from a young woman who is about to finish her mandatory military service. She was his estranged father's lover and has not been able to reach his father for weeks. She fears that his father was an unidentified victim in a cafe bombing and pulls the taxi driver into a hunt for his father.

The mystery at the heart of the plot is an intriguing one. Is there something to what she says or is she just another discarded woman? What really happened that day at the cafe? The thing that bothered me in Exit Wounds the most and prevented me from enjoying it were the characters. I was never able to connect with them and care about their actions. The heart of the story is the shifting relationship between these characters. One of them is completely off stage, one of them is so flighty I couldn't follow, and the other is completely indecisive. A character driven by strange whims isn't sympathetic. While I suspect that Moran was attempting to make the other come across as conflicted I wanted him to just get on with it one way or the other.

In addition I found the dialog to be incredibly clunky. Everyone has the same flat, abbreviated voice and many of the sentences have a strange backward construction. There's no credit in the book for a translator so I'm uncertain if that's an artifact of Moran's writing, her use of English, or if it is just a poor translation from the original Hebrew. No matter the cause it's clumsy and pulled me out of the story.

The artwork in Exit Wounds is very European in style. Modan has a simple, tight technique with her drawing that isn't flashy but is sufficient for her story. It's not dynamic or mood setting or demonstrating wild layouts but this is an internal story and it's also never distracting or clashing with the mood.

I suspect that if I encountered another book by Rutu Modan I would like it better. She is clearly a very skilled comic creator and I'd be happy to give her another chance. Exit Wounds just didn't work for me.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Review - Cerebus: Flight

Cerebus: Flight
by Dave Sim and Gerard
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album - Reprint

These days Dave Sim is best known to comic book fans for his extreme misogynistic views. When I say extreme I mean extreme; stuff that makes the typical attitude of the 1950's look enlightened. But before he went off the deep end and just was hinting at these attitudes he was known as a pioneer of independent comics, a major supporter new comic book creators, and one of the most artistically ambitious creators himself. In one of those strange twists of fate the Eisner was awarded for Sim a few weeks before he published what is generally regarded as the breaking point in the series where anti-woman theme went from a strange back current to explicit authorial statements. Less than a month after his award people would be re-evaluating his work in that context and becoming disturbed by what they found.

Cerebus started as a simple Conan the Barbarian parody but before two years of publication passed Sim made a bold announcement: he would create three hundred issues and then end the series with the title character's death. The series transformed from strict parody to something containing a lot more drama though throughout it Sim continued to parody the current state of the comic book industry. As time went by Cerebus the barbarian anthropomorphic aardvark became prime minister of a country and pope of a major religion all the while being as brutal and nasty to people as character could be.

Flight takes place after Cerebus's spirit has been broken. He knows that he will "die unmourned and unloved", the city that he ruled has been conquered by a militant matriarchy, and the woman he loved married someone else and was hauled off by the secret police. He spent roughly the past year of his worth of stories catatonic and with the 150th issue, the exact mid-point of the series, he finally took action and began cutting a bloody swath through occupying soldiers. Flight picks up at that moment as Cerebus's actions have consequences that are destabilizing reality. As he fans the flames of rebellion he is drawn away to a confrontation with a mystic who has been entangled with him from almost the beginning and wishes to impart personal insights before its too late.

Flight is not a complete story. It's not even a complete arc. It picks up in mid-story beat from the previous issue, has a lot of ominous but not very enlightening things happen, and in the end nothing is resolved. The only thing that has a semblence of resolution isn't really for the careful reader. It's a fragment of a story that just cannot stand on its own.

Making things worse is that Sim spends a lot of time bringing together some of the stranger story elements from the first few years and trying to tie them to the story he started working through much later. These are things he used when he was creating a Conan parody and if you're not familiar with the early issues they make even less sense. Going back and trying to force old story elements to fit in with a radically different direction taken years later inevitably comes across as clumsy and Flight is no different.

Which isn't to say it's completely lacking is entertainment for people who haven't been reading from the beginning. I enjoyed the parody of the Punisher as a completely repressed lunatic who can only respond to his urges through violence and the extreme behavior of comic characters from the early 90's. The sections with Cerebus's confrontation are one of the earliest points where the series dives directly into the head of it's main character. The whole thing does present an ominous atmosphere where you get the impression that the world is about to change dramatically but you can't be sure how it will change.

Dave Sim is terrific at using pacing both in his writing and artwork. He was the first comic book creator to write "for the trade" and created his issues to be read in a large block. Part of that is how his art is laid out. He'll switch from slow, tension building sequences where it can take pages for a character to walk across the room to sequences done as illustrated text.

As for the art itself Sim has a style that allow an anthropomorphic aardvark to stand next to caricatures standing next to more realistically drawn figures and it all looks smooth. He partner Gerard draws backgrounds with an architectural flair that I enjoyed. Together they create an effect similar to an early Disney animated film with hyperdetailed backgrounds and multiple styles of characters all coming together.

Strangely enough I think the strongest aspect to Sim's artwork isn't his character work or even the pacing. In my view he is the best letterer that comics has ever seen. The word balloons in Cerebus are an integral part of the artwork in a way rarely seen elsewhere. They aren't populated with words, they're illustrations of words that add emphasis to the dialog in a way that only comic books could use.

I definitely do not recommend Flight as a starting point for Cerebus. It's just too heavily tied into the backstory for that purpose. I also don't recommend starting to read Cerebus if you're going to put it down in anger a book or two past Flight (if I remember correctly the real breaking point comes at the end of Reads which is two books past this); there's no reason to get involved with a three hundred page story only to walk away when it's two-thirds done because the creator went off on some very bizarre and very offensive tangents. With those caveats in mind there is quite a bit to like in Cerebus before that point. In fact I plan on finishing reading the series some day just because the first two-thirds are so good that I want to read an ending despite my feelings about Dave Sim. It's just been really hard to justify picking the books to finish it off.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Review - Kyle Baker Cartoonist and The Bakers

Kyle Baker, Cartoonist
The Bakers: Do These Toys Belong Somewhere
The Bakers: Babies and Kittens
by Kyle Baker
2005 and 2006 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist - Humor

These books are the flip side of Dork. Dork was dense; these are fluffy full page, silent cartoons. Dork targets a mature audience of twenty to thirty year olds; The Bakers is so accessible I'd hand it out to anyone from eight to eighty. Dork was about as black as humor can get; these books are so cheerful they could be prescribed to people with clinical depression. And while I liked Dork I loved these offerings from Kyle Baker.

The reason I've combined these together is that Kyle Baker, Cartoonist and The Bakers: Do These Toys Belong Somewhere have an identical format and even share some of the same cartoons. And as long as I was talking about the first books it made sense to combine it with the other one. The first two books are a collection of cartoons. Most of them have no text other than a caption. Cartoonist are mainly single illustrations while Do These Toys expands things to multiple panels and occasionally going for two or three pages. Babies and Kittens on the other hand is a single story in a traditional comic book format.

Most of these stories are about Kyle Baker and his home life. His wife, children, and himself are the only characters in The Bakers. They have the usual domestic problems; a lost tooth, a poorly cooked dinner, and getting the kids dressed to go out. In Babies and Kittens a mouse loose in the house puts them in mind to get a cat but Kyle is allergic to them. The cartoons in the other book are more free form taking on any subject that came to mind.

Because these are so brief and so simple it makes commenting on them easy. The sour notes in the comedy are rare. This is material that has been fodder for jokes since the first caveman comedians but the reason for that is they are completely universal themes. You have lived a bleak and lonely life and have my sympathies for it if you cannot recognize the scenes in The Bakers. None of this comes across as rehashed Bill Cosby routines because Baker is exceptional at telling a joke through the art.

Baker's art drips with style. His characters are astoundingly expressive as they have to be since they often have to carry the narrative or joke without saying a word. There's a section in Babies and Kittens which is a long cat and mouse cartoon and Baker is just as adapt with the animals. These are beautiful books and the skill demonstrated in the artwork is what makes them worthwhile.

I loved all three of these books and in case I haven't made it obvious I strongly recommend all of them. The best way to sell them to you, though, is that Babies and Kittens can be read on Kyle Baker's website. There is absolutely no reason not to try it out other than the fact that the real book looks nicer than the small flash animation on the website. These books are completely charming and worth checking out.