Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Essex County (Vol. 1): Tales From the Farm

Essex County (Vol. 1): Tales From the Farm
by Jeff Lemire
Top Shelf 2007

Hillary Brown: I've been seeing the covers of Jeff Lemire's Essex County Trilogy for a while now, and their intense colors on uncoated cover stock really catch the eye. They've also been getting good reviews all over the place, including from Eddie Argos. So it's not like I was hanging back out of principle or wariness or anything like that. I just sort of hadn't gotten around to them yet. And I have to say... I was a little disappointed with Tales from the Farm, the first in the series. Maybe I'm a jerk about wanting my comics generally to be more adult (see, for example, my Vertigo love), but I tend to get picky about things that are more young adult than adult proper. I know that developing minds need a gentler approach, and Tales from the Farm is probably oriented even younger than that, but I like stuff that pushes my buttons, and that tends to be either pretty deep emotionally or full of sex adn violence, which, you know, this is neither. I am being an ass. It's beautifully drawn. Lemire's line is incredibly distinctive, and he could probably do quite well writing a book sans words, as his characters convey considerable emotion in their faces and body language. And the writing bit isn't bad, either. It's just not as solid as the art. Your thoughts?

Garrett Martin: Well, I disagree! Especially about the sex and violence, but also about this book in particular. It skews young, sure, but I expected that, and thought it was pretty successful on those terms. It's not as broad or cloying as many YA comics, and although it may not be all that "emotionally deep", its handling of certain matters could be a lot less elegant. There was restraint in the flashbacks that explained how the boy came to live with his uncle. Apparently it's hard to be restrained about stuff like that, considering how other, lesser works deal with similar issues. I'm not referring to comics specifically right there, but movies, books, TV shows, etc. Lemire doesn't embarrass himself.

He also doesn't distinguish himself as a writer, though. No particular problems jumped out at me as I read the book, but everything felt just a bit too nondescript. I do appreciate the leisurely pace and lack of hysterics, but the story itself is familiar territory. He kept things simple and straight-forward, which is nice, and knows when to end a scene, but if it wasn't for the book's brevity and Lemire's craggy, expressive art, I probably would've dozed off a time or two.

HB: I think we're coming from the same place here, or at least arriving at the same conclusion, which, to put it bluntly, is that this book is no Skyscrapers of the Midwest, right? I don't mean it to sound like I'm some sort of desensitized fiend who'd be roaming the streets looking for people to assault in a Frank Miller comic, and Josh Cotter's work manages to push those buttons I referred to without resorting to either sex or violence. It just goes deeper, somehow. You're totally right to credit Lemire for his restraint, and it's appreciated on my end too--it's very midwestern in its own way, in its lack of over-emoting. It's not a movie of the week approach at all. But at the same time, being hypercritical here, this book isn't up to Cotter's level, and while that may be (and probably is) because it's attempting to reach a younger audience, that sort of bugs me. I can definitely praise it for its own merits, but I was expecting a little more.

GM: Right, good comparison. That restraint I mentioned is also why Tales From the Farm isn't Skyscrapers. And I don't mean emotional or dramatic restraint, but how Lemire focuses more directly on the story, generally avoiding the surrealism and fantasy found throughout Skyscrapers. I'd call that a good thing if Cotter hadn't somehow brilliantly walked that thin line between poignancy and pretension. It's weird, I thought of Skyscrapers when I read Farm, but didn't consider it again until you mentioned it in this conversation. Maybe because, even though they do bear many similarities, they're also vastly different?

HB: Right. You could group them, curatorially, with Chris Ware's work (midwesternish, restrained, kind of depressing) as well, and it's tough competition for Lemire to put him up against those two. I could also rephrase this as: Even months later, I'm still realizing just how good Cotter's book is, and it's not fair for me to compare everything I read that's at all similar to it as they're almost guaranteed to look bad in that sort of light. Vastly different might be an overstatement, though. Convince me.

GM: Wait - is Canada Midwestern? Doesn't this take place up there? Is Canada just the setting, and not where Lemire actually hails from? Is it dumb to ask this, when the internet could easily divulge this info to me in less time than it's taken to write this sentence?

I'd say they're vastly different in terms of structure and technique, if not theme. Tales From the Farm is a straight-forward story, with an easily diagrammed plot. The fantasy elements are less integral, not narratively, but visually. In Farm there's only, what, one scene that's not clearly set in the real world? Skyscrapers is more surreal, a bit stream-of-consciousness, and those're the most memorable and important parts about that book. Maybe I should've written "these two are vastly different despite having remarkably similar subject matter", much like I'll hopefully be able to say about that Seth Rogen / Jody Hill movie that looks far too much like Paul Blart?

HB: I wouldn't say Canada is technically midwestern--clearly, parts of it exist much farther east and west than that--but doesn't it come off that way? Everyone is so unassuming and polite.

Anyway, fair enough on that last point. They're similar and they're different and people should maybe read both of them, although we agree that Lemire's work skews younger and less complex.

GM: I remembered that guy was a hockey player and realized this had to be Canadian. And it is. Yep!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Adventures of Blanche

The Adventures of Blanche
by Rick Geary
Dark Horse, 2009

Garrett Martin: Rick Geary's obviously big on history, but Adventures of Blanche promised to be a slightly different project for him. Instead of focusing on infamous events or important people, Blanche is supposedly based on letters Geary's grandmother wrote to her family when she was a young woman. It seemed like a more personal work than the J. Edgar Hoover book or the Victorian murder series. I took that set-up at face value, and looked forward to seeing if Geary could turn what I assumed would be a relatively normal life into a comic interesting to anyone other than his fans and early 20th century history geeks. Well, either Geary's grandmother told some tales in her letters, or else Geary fictionalized some or all of her life, as this is pretty obviously not the most factual story in the world. How much of this do you think actually happened?

Hillary Brown: That's a good question to start off with, and one that I'm really not sure of the answer to. Despite Geary's general trend toward focusing on scholarship and research (and not to say that this book doesn't have some of those--he's clearly interested in historical accuracy and in teasing out sociological trends), he's an odd bird. I also recently read his Gumby comic, which is strange and fairly druggy and terrifying for a book that's, um, supposed to be for kids, and it kind of illuminated or prepared the way for this book. I came to it with the same impression as you, an impression Geary takes some trouble to give, and I'm still not sure if we've got a Fargo situation here or something that's much more based in reality to begin with and only later departs into unheard of realms (seems like it's something in between, according to this interview). All that established, I think it's kind of nice for Geary's imagination to have a chance to stretch its wings, and he comes up with some interesting stuff, complete with a weirdly reiterated theme of perilous dangling from elevated objects. My favorite of the three stories is probably the first one, due to the particular turn it takes into occult creature worship and the beautiful panel layout of the space between the walls, but I certainly enjoyed all three, not a little bit because I had no idea where they were going.

GM: Right, it definitely kept me on my toes, rarely going in any of the directions I was expecting it to. I really enjoyed this book, even if it's a little slight and Forrest Gump-ish (or at least would be if Blanche was an obnoxious simpleton). And as far as the "grandma did some crazy shit" school of fiction goes, I'm pretty sure this is the only one to feature DW Griffith in a hot-air balloon. Yeah, Blanche regularly bumps into real-life historical figures, but thankfully Geary mostly avoids some of the more obvious ones from these various eras. Blanche doesn't go on a blind date with a young Adolf Hitler or talk smack about minorities with Woodrow Wilson, or anything like that. It's more thoughtful than that. Also, I don't know if Geary did any touch-ups or editing jobs, outside of the new intro, but this book's surprisingly consistent, considering the three chapters were published individually over the last 18 or so years. You've read far more Geary than me. How does this compare to his other works?

HB: I think it's not quite as good as my favorites in the Treasury of Victorian Murder series (and the one entry in the Twentieth-Century Murder series so far), but it might be on par with the weaker entries. This isn't to say, though, that it's weak Geary. I'm not really sure that exists yet. I'm just complaining that there are fewer maps. And fewer murders. Basically, as you're picking up on, the dude is remarkably consistent, quality-wise. No soaring highs matched with sad little lows here (although I haven't yet read the book about ants that he illustrated and I picked up for a dollar last year at Heroescon), but instead a nice, even keel that's rarely boring. I really like this blind date with Hitler idea, though... Maybe you should email him?

GM: How much of that consistency comes down to him rarely writing new material? No slight on him as an artist whatsoever, and he obviously has a good head for research and picking fascinating events to craft a book around, but it's got to be harder to fail when you're not trying to tell original stories, right?

HB: No, that's a fair point to make, and I guess that trend in his work may come out of his illustration background, but it doesn't bother me. I think he does an excellent job shaping reality to the stories he wants to tell, to some extent, although it may just be that I'm kind of a history nerd. I think his first book, Housebound, is original material, but it's one of the few I don't have. Anyway, yes, he's slightly ghettoized himself, but I don't know if anyone's better at what he does.

GM: I agree.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Dark Horse Presents #20

Dark Horse Presents #20
by Kate Beaton, Kristian Donaldson, David Malki, and Chris Onstad
Dark Horse / Myspace 2009

Hillary Brown: Is this the only thing MySpace is even good for anymore besides streaming music? Even if so, it's a good enough reason for it to continue to exist. I really need to mark my calendar to go check this stuff out every time Dark Horse posts it. This issue (is that the right word?) is solid top to bottom, corner to corner. It's like an awesome mini anthology that doesn't have any restrictions on page count due to maximization of printing efficiency, and so people can either go long or go short, and there's no reason for weak-ass shit to sneak in. I saved the Onstad piece ("Achewood: The Garage Sale") for last, to do that whole delayed pleasure thing, but the other three were almost as good and comparably amusing. "Ann Romano, Gossip Whore in Gone Dishin'," illustrated by Kristian Donaldson is breezy and sharp; "Wondermark: The Catch," by David Malki, is quirky and funny and surprising; and Kate Beaton's "The Origin of Man" is a great two-page goofball gag. I'm not really sure if I even like Onstad's contribution the most, which is really saying something for the rest of them. Okay, maybe I do, but the other three are all new to me (although Beaton's stuff looks familiar). Do you read these MDHP (MySpace Dark Horse Presents) things regularly? Are they always this good from start to finish?

Garrett Martin: Issue? Installment? Prog? I don't know. I've never checked this out before. I don't remember if I even knew they existed before last week. I'm glad I do now, though, because yes, this particular collection of strips is very good. Especially Beaton's piece, which might be only two pages, but has a great set-up and an even better punchline. This is the first thing I've ever actually read by her, which is pretty dumb on my part, because I've been hearing great things for months now. Guess I've been too busy reading Booster Gold or something. But I love her drawings, how they're maybe a little sloppy and both relaxed but reasonably detailed. And, y'know, like we said, she's damn funny, too. The Onstad was good, no doubt, but maybe rambled on a bit. I kept thinking every page was the last, and the true finale was no more or less final than any of the other possible endings. Maybe it's in the presentation, the expectations you bring to something defined as a single specific strip, but this probably would've worked better as a week's worth of Achewoods. Now, Malki and Donaldson I'd never even heard of. Had you?

HB: Well, there was a previous Onstad that involved Taco Bell and food criticism and was just, you know, brilliant. I'm pretty sure that was a DHPMS number. This garage sale one isn't quite up to that level, and the way that it relates to garage sale stuff that was going on in the strip is a little confusing, I suppose, but, having been raised to stop at the mere hint of someone's worldly possessions laid out for perusal, it all rang quite true. You're right about it not having a lot of structure, but I'm not sure Onstad's stuff ever really does. You make a good case for the Beaton piece being the best of the bunch, and I have to at least consider that it might be. I've also been thinking over the past few days, and I know I've come across her work before, probably just linked all over the internet. The other two, though, no. Not even an inkling that I might know who they are. How do you think Dark Horse picks people for this feature?

GM: Two dudes you know plus two dudes you don't. The former's the draw, the latter hopefully the draws of the future. But then maybe Malki and Donaldson are hot-shit young squires of the underground comic world, and we're just total ignoramuses. Ignorami. Looking at their wikipedias, they've probably got higher profiles than Beaton. I also now realize that I'm familiar with Donaldson, thanks to his issue of DMZ and the book he did with Brian Wood, Supermarket. Haven't read that, but I see the cover every time I'm in the shop, and it looks intriguging. And Malki's strip is kinda familiar, though nothing I know by name. Anyway, if Dark Horse was like, "hey here's free stuff by Malki and Donaldson", who knows how many would click that link. Onstad and Beaton plus two (or, honestly, just Onstad + whatever) has a better ring, marketing wise. Plus that Goon cameo has a touch of bet-hedging about it; that's like the Dark Horse equivalent of a Wolverine appearance. (Ever read The Goon? I don't like that book as much as I should.)

I don't want to short-change Malki or Donaldson, of course. Wondermark is pretty damn hilarious, and I thank Dark Horse for bringing it fully to my attention. And I'm loving Donaldson's art; it slightly reminds me of both Cliff Chiang and Paul Pope without looking too much like either. Great stuff!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Bride of Bordoom

Bride of Bordoom
by David Yoder

Hillary Brown: In some ways, I feel like you should be the one to kick off this discussion of David Yoder's seven-page mini, "Bride of Bordoom" because it draws so heavily on the kind of golden-age comics stuff you're always reading, but then again, I'm the one who's always boosterizing for Yoder, so maybe it should fall to me. Anyway, I'm really happy he got into the Center for Cartoon Studies because it means he's always Live Journaling up his homework assignments, i.e., new work, and that's what this is, rather than an extracurricular project. I don't really know what kind of context that puts it in, but I guess it's worth supplying, and I happen to think the results are pretty hilarious. Yes, it's far too short, and I'm sure you can point out all kinds of shortcomings with it as far as its apery goes, but I like the herky-jerky quality of the story, which is all: THIS bit of dramatic narration. AND THEN.... THIS bit of dramatic narration. It's a style I happen to find particularly amusing, and Yoder's lumpy, cartoony figures also make me laugh. I almost feel it's crazy to be discussing this, but it's important for us to cover a wide variety of stuff, and it takes so little time to read that people really should bother, right?

Garrett Martin: Yes, people should bother, because "Bride of Bordoom" is one thoroughly pleasant comic. It's definitely more entertaining than any homework I ever had to do. And it'd be silly to point out "shortcomings" in its "apery"; it's so simple and straight-forward that any such complaints would look completely ridiculous. It's got everything you'd expect from an old monster comic (an awesome Kirbyan name, science as both the cause of and solution to the problem, a president, etc.), depicted about as economically as possible. And yeah, Yoder's art is charming, and, y'know, whimsical. Obviously qualities we like around here. I like extremely minimalist encapsulations of entire genres, and this here is one of those, for real.

I'm dumb. We've talked about this guy before, haven't we?

HB: I've mentioned him (in this post) because I'm a big fan, but he's still really young and not much published. He usually shows up at Fluke, Athens's indie-oriented comics thing/convention, but I haven't, like, gushed in person. Nor shall I, most likely. At any rate, it's a very cute comic, and while it's not really adding anything new to commentary on Golden Age comics, it's nicely done, down to the paper in the background, which is a touch I'm particularly fond of. Mostly, people should add his LiveJournal to their readers. There's a children's book up now too.

GM: Cool. He is an artist worth talking about, for sure. I gotta make it down to one of those Fluke things, too. When is it this year?

HB: April 9th, at Tasty World in Athens.

GM: Maybe I can do that. Probably not. If only there was some way to have a Fluke on Twilight Saturday. Or maybe some way for me take an entire month off work and stay down there for all of April.