Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Review - Krazy and Ignatz

Krazy and Ignatz
by George Herriman
2003, 2004 Eisner Winner for Best Archival Project

One of the fun things about taking up the hobby of collecting these award winning books for me is that on occasion it gives me an excuse to get something that I have wanted to try but never got around to getting. I've had a lot of curiosity about pre-1938 comics for a while as part of the history of comics but it's also been hard for me to justify picking up books containing them.

I had heard of Krazy Kat before but I had never seen a complete strip. I had only seen tiny ink line doodle like sketches of the characters. I knew that it was considered to be hugely influential but I didn't really know why. So I chose the 1929-1930 volume of the Krazy and Ignatz collections, each of which reprint the Sunday strips covering two years, and dove in with little expectations. And at first I was bewildered, then boggled, and finally amused as I caught onto the rhythms of Coconino County.

The concept of the strip is elegantly simple. Krazy is a dream-addled cat who is love with Ignatz. Ignatz is an angry mouse who loves throwing bricks at Krazy's head which Krazy takes as a sign of affection. Officer Pup is a dog who may love Krazy and does love putting Ignatz in jail for throwing bricks. Around and around the three of them go in their endless comedic cycle.

It's a simple structure but it is also effective. Once you grasp the cycle of love, violence, and justice that the three characters represent the cycle that they run in becomes entertaining. If it had just been pictures of Krazy in love with Ignatz followed by a brick to the head which ends in Ignatz in jail by Officer Pup then it would have quickly become dull. Instead the stories slide between the three of their viewpoints from Krazy's ignorance of Ignatz violence, Ignatz's complex schemes to obtain and throw bricks at Krazy, and Officer Pup's attempts to curtail that violence. It's astounding how much millage Herriman can get out these three characters.

The wordplay that Herriman uses is absolutely dizzying. While the jokes are typically slapstick or situational the dialog has its own odd cadence. Krazy speaks in a hard to decipher accent and captions read more like poetry than narration. This writing was the biggest barrier to my enjoyment of the strips since I wasn't certain if it was a joke I wasn't getting or just odd writing. Once I got into the swing of things and understood that it was just a bit more quirkiness I enjoyed it more.

Herriman's sketchy artwork looks like doodles you'd find in a notebook but I don't think this is a bad thing in this case. He consistently uses shifting, surreal backgrounds that reminded me of Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) and no panel's background resembles the background of those surrounding it. For most of 1929 he used a tightly structured nine panel layout for the pages with the middle panel containing a cartoon that was separate from the rest of the strip. After this he starts exploring the space and layout more and by the end of 1930 is getting very creative with his layouts.

As an archive I thought that this book did a great job. It contains all of the Sunday strips for two years and in instances where the syndicate's misordering of pages harmed the pacing of the strips they are slightly rearranged. Each book in this series contains two years of material and they chose to start in the middle of the Krazy Kat run at what might be considered its artistic peak and have been working their way forward and backward from that point. It's also still ongoing which tells me that they've got a good chance of fully reprinting all of the material; if they stick to the printing schedule that Amazon has listed for preorders then they'll finish by next year. The reprints are clear and the book feels solid. My only complaint is that I'd rather have five years in a hard cover than two years in a paperback but that's a minor one.

I don't know if I'll get all of Krazy Kat but I will be getting a few more volumes of this archive. It's a work that by virtue of its simplicity still holds meaning eighty years later. It seems strange at first glance and it will still be strange even after you find yourself lost in it. But that strangeness goes from being a barrier to a comfort. This is a fine edition of a great comic strip.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Review - Astonishing X-Men

Astonishing X-Men
Written by Joss Whedon; Art by John Cassaday
2006 Eisner Winner for Best Continuing Series
2005, 2006 Eisner Winner for Best Penciler/Inker

The was once a time when I liked the X-Men quite a bit. Over time though the way the franchise became a bloated mess drove me away. The lack of anything vaguely resembling interesting stories helped keep me away. So a few years ago I was hearing from people like me that had become sick of the X-Men say that Grant Morrison had managed to make the series readable again. They were right; he did it by throwing out the accumulated baggage and bringing things back to the core themes. When Morrison left Marvel Comics thought they had the formula worked out to keep the re-energized franchise going and tried to catch lighting in a bottle for the second time by handing over their flagship franchise to Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon. The result was something firmly average; not aggressively awful enough to be tossed aside but little more than a generic superhero comic.

In fact that is exactly how the run starts. There's a firm announcement that they've gotten away from that whole superhero thing and have to go back to it. And when I say announcement I don't mean that Whedon started out with them doing superhero things; they literally sit down and say, "We need to be superheroes again." And that sets down the themes for his stories. Lots of action, big threats, and high concepts that would look good on the movie screen. It's all shallow and without texture though.

The run opens with its high point. As the X-Men attempt to reform their image by acting as superheroes their cause is undermined by someone discovering what is in essence a cure for mutants. Since the reason for their existence is the promotion and protection of superpowered mutants this threatens to undermine their position and handling superpowers as a disease could change everything. And since this is a fairly complicated ethical issue in a comic that has announced its intention to be a superhero book again it turns out to be a plot by alien invaders, is resolved by punching some people a lot, and the complications that should have been created by a cure for mutants is quietly dropped.

After that first storyline it's all action all the time as they fight an evil computer, a mind controlling enemy, and aliens who to blow up the earth. These stories wind up being defined by who they fight rather than what the characters do. The one exception is in the mind control storyline where there are a few clever moments where some traditional characterization is subverted. It's not very clever but it is a step up from what is going on.

The characterization is a major part of my problem with Whedon's writing. He writes X-Men like he wrote Buffy (which is just like how he writes a lot of things when you get down to it). There's a lot of teen angst and romance which doesn't really fit with adult characters. You also have tough girls (I can't really call them women) including a new character who seems to exist solely to be the cute but tough new girl. If there's anything else to her I didn't see any evidence of it in the stories.

The absolute best thing about Astonishing X-Men is John Cassaday's art. He tends to draw well detailed figures but before simple backgrounds and consequently keeps the focus on the characters. This is a book that is dependent on the action sequences and Cassaday does a great job there in creating sequences that are easy to follow, well paced, and exciting to look at. This is a book that matches his talents and I enjoyed the visuals quite a bit.

I can't say I hated Whedon's writing on Astonishing X-Men. My feelings about it just don't rise to that level. Disappointed might be a better way to put it since there's nothing in the writing to distinguish it from any other superhero book on the shelf. Cassaday on the other hand did a stunning job with his artwork and for that reason I didn't mind reading it. I still wouldn't recommend it to anyone other that superhero fans and even there I'd say try a small sample of it first.