Archive for October, 2011
Soap and Water chapters 26 and 27 are now posted at Red Lemonade. The action has picked up! Things are moving! Excitement is happening!
I’ve also recorded audio versions of chapters 8 and 9, and those are on the Soap and Water page here, along with e-reader versions of the new chapters.
Thanks to all who continue to read, comment, and share!
I’ve been struggling for weeks trying to find a good way to review Craig Thompson‘s latest book Habibi. Blankets, which came out in 2003, gave Thompson permanent cred in the indie comics world, and Habibi is his first major book since then. So I’ve felt like I owed it a serious review: it’s a major work by a major figure.
The problem has been that it’s got so many major thematic currents, it took me actually sitting down and trying to write this to understand how they all relate and what Thompson is trying to accomplish. And to articulate why, despite the immense ambition and skill on display here, I came away somewhat dissatisfied.
Let me start with a bare-bones story outline: when Dodola is still a child bride, desert nomads attack her village, kill her scribe husband, and capture her to be sold as a slave. She escapes from them with a young black slave she names Zam, and together they flee to a boat marooned in the desert, where they live for many years, as Dodola trades sex to passing caravans for food. Then she is once again captured and taken to a sultan’s harem, where she pines for Zam, her lost child. Zam meanwhile reaches puberty and, disgusted with what sex has done to Dodola, becomes a eunuch. The question hanging over the majority of the narrative is whether they’ll ever be reunited.
Alongside this major story, however, run a whole lot of thematic digressions. First of all, Dodola is a storyteller, so we get lots of her stories to Zam. Many are Quranic, but some are simply Arabic folklore, and many include discussions of the mystical properties of Arabic letters, which I think is derived from Sufism. (There are lots of references to Sufism in the book, including quotations from Rumi.)
Second, there’s the theme of environmental degradation, mostly played out through the use and abuse of water. Zam is named for Zamzam, the sacred well Ishmael found when Abraham exiled him and his mother Hagar to the desert. Zam finds the water that the government has dammed and sells it in the local village; by the end of the book all water is so polluted that he and Dodola fall deathly ill merely by swimming in it. There are stories about Adam and Eve using up the bounty of Eden, Solomon turning Lebanon sterile by cutting its cedars for the Holy Temple, and more. Overall we are given the sense that around this historically unrooted drama of Dodola and Zam humans are industrializing the world and consuming it to death. There are caravans and waterskins at the beginning of the book, high-rise construction projects and bottled water by the end.
This second theme sits comfortably beside the third: the way Dodola and Zam both exploit and trade their bodies to survive, at the same time depending on their flesh and hating it. There’s a familiar Marxian critique there, where everything is converted into commodities and used up, from the natural world around us to the bodies of the poor.
But those two things together sit very uncomfortably beside the Islamic mysticism, because asceticism isn’t really offered as a viable alternative. Rather, at the very end, it becomes clear that Thompson wants to offer mystical experience as a way to redeem the decadent, corrupting material world. Dodola and Zam, reunited, adopt a slave girl since they can’t have their own child, and the book closes on an examination of the letterology of the Arabic words for “love” (hubb) and “my beloved” (habibi). Here are the final lines:
The Sufi saint Rubi’a Al-Adawiyya was seen carrying a firebrand and a jug of water. The firebrand—to burn Paradise… The jug of water—to drown Hell… So that both veils disappear… and God’s followers worship… not out of hope for reward… nor fear of punishment… but out of [love].” [The word "love" is given in Arabic, ellipses in the original.]
I have three problems with this, two based on its execution in the book and one with the underlying concept.
Problem #1 with the execution: Thompson skips a step. He doesn’t really explain, at least not in a way that got through to me, how all the mystic letterology throughout Habibi connects to this ecstatic embrace of religious love. Doubtless the connection is there to be made, since both come from the same Sufi tradition. But it needed to be made evident earlier that there is more to the pages and pages about Arabic letters arranged in grids than we see, that it all springs from the same redemptive impulse.
Problem #2 with the execution: these characters are deeply in love with each other throughout the whole graphic novel, across monumental obstacles. Different kinds of love, too, as over time their relationship shifts from mother/son to husband/wife. Yet they both suffer tremendously, and all that changes to allow them redemptive love at the end is that they overcome the obstacles between them, establish a degree of material security, and form a family. The possibility of redemption isn’t open to them until external circumstances allow it.
Which brings me to my problem with the underlying concept. For a religious or mystical experience to offer redemption from a fallen world, it has to claim to be available to everyone. That’s the case in any religious tradition I can think of offhand: no matter who you are, what your current circumstances, you can improve yourself in this life or the next starting from the present moment. Well, I don’t think I believe that. It’s one of my beefs with religion. Anyone can be a good person at any time, but not everyone can have a transcendent experience. The world around you has to allow it. Which is exactly what Thompson’s plot has happen to Dodola and Zam, even if he lards on mystical quotes to claim otherwise.
One last thing, because this is getting very long. Thompson, so far as I know, is not a Muslim. Blankets was about his own growth away from the fundamentalist Christianity of his youth, and there was a sense of authenticity to it that Habibi lacks. It’s a truly risky thing to put on someone else’s religious tradition, and I’m not sure how right Habibi will feel to someone who grew up with Islam. To me, someone distinctly not of that tradition myself, its Sufism feels scholarly, well-researched, rather than lived in.
Let me be clear: Habibi is a fascinating book, well worth a read. The fact that I have problems with the execution and content of its major premise shouldn’t overshadow how great it is that it actually tackles major themes. It certainly gave me a lot to ponder.
It’s also gorgeous.
Both Bell and Mutch primarily published their stuff online, in Mutch’s case later collecting it into a print volume, Fantastic Life. I got a chance to ask all three of them how they thought the changing distribution channels of comics (originally newspapers for Bechdel, experimental print books for Mutch, and always Web-first for Bell) had influenced the way they tell stories.
The answers were not at all what I expected. Bell said she started publishing online because newspapers are dying and it’s impossible to get a newspaper strip. But a newspaper strip is what she really wanted and for quite a while she conceived of her Web comics in a newspaper-strip-like vein, where there had to be a concluding beat for each page she published. Mutch said that he always imagined Fantastic Life as a printed work, with the aspect ratio of a traditional book, and serialized it a page at a time with that in mind, though he said that working directly in digital makes it much easier to achieve certain effects with color.
He pointed out that despite Scott McCloud’s prediction a decade ago of “the infinite canvas“—of online comic writer/artists making ever-greater use of the Web’s infinitely scrollable page, interactive graphics, simple animation—in fact the comics published online have remained for the most part faithful to traditional, print-derived formats. Probably (and this is my interpretation) that’s because there’s no money in online comics, so smart authors always have an eye toward the print collection. Mutch noted that the rise of tablet readers as a viable endpoint for publication might change that, though there, too, the aspect ratio is that of a traditional book. (Alison Bechdel mentioned Chris Ware’s new iPad-only comic Touch Sensitive for McSweeney’s as an example of an author exploring these new boundaries, but then Ware has always been about testing formal boundaries.)
Certainly, when I look at Bell and Mutch’s work in Best American Comics, there’s nothing about it to suggest a Web origin.
I had all this in mind when I picked up the sixth and final volume of Warren Ellis’s FreakAngels. FreakAngels was the first foray into Web-first publishing I know of by an author who’d built a major reputation for himself first in print. I assume he was the first because, alone of the famous comic book authors of his era, Ellis was a blogging pioneer. I’d bet that at one time at least as many people knew him through his regular collection of disturbing and disgusting stories and pictures at warrenellis.com as knew his comics.
Here’s the product description, because it’s easier than recreating it myself:
Twenty-three years ago, twelve strange children were born in England at exactly the same moment. Six years ago, they used their psychic powers in unison and accidentally flooded the world. Today, they live in and defend Whitechapel, perhaps the last real settlement in soggy London.
Now, FreakAngels does show that it was written with the plan of being collected into trade paperback–sized print books. There’s no crazy formal experimentation with layout or design, though it could be argued that the limitations of computer display led artist Paul Duffield to select bold colors and fairly simply compositions with lots of angles and attention to perspective, almost reminiscent of architectural drafting.
I have noticed a lack of act breaks. A lot of authors writing for issues nowadays have one eye on the trade paperback, where I think most of the money is made, and so structure their stories in four- to six-issue arcs. Every so many issues you come to a stopping place that resolves some conflicts and perhaps sets up ones to come, and as a result the trade paperbacks have a natural structure, with each volume telling a more or less self-contained piece of the story.
FreakAngels, which was serialized steadily in six-page episodes biweekly, doesn’t work like that. The story has dips and turns, but there’s no natural rest at the end of each volume, the new one just picks up at the same place it left off. That’s a style that works very well for a continuous story on the Web but doesn’t work so well in books. Every time I’ve bought a new volume of FreakAngels I’ve had to go back and review where we are.
On the other hand, I tried reading it on the Web, too, and a six-page episode every other week is no better way to maintain a continuous sense of story. A lot of that probably can be put down to Warren Ellis simply trying to service too many characters at once—a dozen is simply too many to give distinct voices and interesting development, especially in the serial format, and by never breaking into discrete chunks Ellis never gave himself the opportunity to focus on one or two for an extended time.
As a result, in the end we get a plot climax without much accompanying character resolution, and the whole exercise feels a bit unsatisfying. That’s too bad, because as usual for Ellis the books were packed full of ideas and inventiveness, and had a great setup. I just wish it had had a chance to deepen more before the end.
Soap and Water chapter 25 is now posted on Red Lemonade. This one’s a bit longer than I’d have posted in the past, mainly because more happens. I’m still trying to figure out the right timing for these things: based on the response from you guys I think every other week is too long, and twice a week seemed too much, so we’ll try once a week for a little while and see how that goes.
E-reader versions are on the Soap and Water page as usual. I’ve also recorded another audio chapter—I’ve gotten up to chapter 7 now—and posted that in the same place. Please let me know if you’re downloading these: I can’t see it in my analytics, so I can’t decide whether it’s worth it to spring for the service that auto-syndicates to iTunes for you. (Alternatively, if anybody knows how to help me set up an RSS feed for iTunes, I could syndicate it to iTunes myself.)
We’re more than halfway through now. I can’t thank you guys enough for sticking with this. It’s made an enormous difference. Please continue to comment and help me promote this on Facebook etc. Everything helps.
Soap and Water chapters 22, 23, and 24 are now posted at Red Lemonade. I’m putting up more at once and doing it less frequently because that seems to be the way people are actually reading the book—catching up a few chapters at a time. Let me know how that works for you.
I’ve also put up mp3s of the first six chapters on the Soap and Water page here, and will continue to put up more. If it’s easier for you to listen on the go than sit down in front of a computer and read, those are for you. Just please make time to comment on Red Lemonade when you’re done. As always, e-reader versions are all in the same place, on the Soap and Water page.
Thanks as always for reading, commenting, and sharing. I truly appreciate it.
Americus, written by MK Reed and drawn by Jonathan Hill, is a straightforward morality tale: a ninth-grade avid reader and his librarian pal stand up to the fundamentalist peanut-brains who want to ban Harry Potter for teaching kids witchcraft. (The part of the Harry Potter series is played by a fictional series called The Adventures of Apathea Ravenchilde.)
Now, on the one hand I’d like to be high-minded and remind Reed that he does himself no favors by making his main antagonist into a shrieking harpy cartoon who not only refuses to read the Ravenchilde books before she condemns them, but also packs her gay son off to a military school to turn him straight.
On the other hand, lots of people exactly that crazy do live in America, and do they really deserve a nuanced portrayal?
In any case, I like having reading be heroic, and I like how the excerpts from the adventure book are drawn with much more nuance and life than the bare-outlined figures of everyday life.
I’ve got audio versions of the first four chapters up on the Soap and Water page. Use this post to let me know what you think, and if there are any more convenient ways of getting them to you.
Joe Ollmann’s Mid-Life feels like a throwback to the alternative comics of fifteen years ago, the ones whose loss I was mourning in my last review. Cramped, functional art designed to pack as much day-to-day detail of its story into each identically gridded page, based around an unlikeable everyman protagonist who feels like the author’s disgusted vision of himself, and a meandering plot.
Of course, back then the comic would have come out in single issues and told of its her’s miserable romantic life and dead-end job. In that sense Mid-Life is like checking in on one of those authors fifteen years on, so that now his miserable avatar is juggling two grown kids from a first failed marriage, an infant from a new second marriage, and a burgeoning crush on a children’s-music singer.
So far I probably sound rather negative. The truth is that Mid-Life does many things well. It devotes a fair amount of space to the children’s singer herself, and she’s an interesting character, trying to figure out whether she should abandon her dreams of being a serious musician once and for all to put on the golden handcuffs of a cable-network kids’ show. And Ollmann manages to infuse a lot of originality into the details of his protagonist’s mid-life crisis, even if the broad outlines are familiar.
PDF preview here.
My favorite part of the new Optic Nerve comes at the very end, after the letters page, in what Adrian Tomine describes as “a pointless, dashed-off autobio. strip.” It’s a two-page spread that describes the lengths he had to go to get a new issue of the comic into stores. See, nobody in the “serious” graphic novel business wants anything to do with the old monthly magazine trade anymore. The profit margins are too low, and none of the new generation of graphic novel buyers want them anyway. The existence of a “floppy” Optic Nerve is due entirely to Tomine’s nostalgia for the old format and all its ancillary special features. He mentions “the incidental drawings and gags in Eightball, the hand-drawn ‘plugs’ in Yummy Fur, the letters pages in Dirty Plotte” (and I’d add the fake ads in The Acme Novelty Library).
I identify deeply with that nostalgia, and with Tomine’s sense of shock at discovering all those things are gone. Until I read those two little pages I didn’t recognize they were never coming back, either, and now I’m in mourning. I’m sure the brave new internet-let world will develop its own stylistic signatures and quirks, but these were the ones I fell in love with and it’s sad to realize they’re almost gone. Will it still be comics when we lose the ritual of visiting the store every Wednesday to see what’s new?
Appropriately enough, the first of the two longer stories in the issue also revives a dying form, in this case the newspaper comic: six four-panel strips followed by a full-page color spread, with radically simplified figures and a punchline (or something given the weight of a punchline) in the end panel each “day.” Everything has to be conveyed through dialogue, nothing through drawn facial expressions or boxes of narration, which eliminates the reflective mood Tomine’s stuff usually has. It’s unfortunate because the story itself–about a suburban gardener who for years tries and fails to sell his new form of art combining sculpture and living plants–is very much his kind of plot. If he’d allowed himself his usual devices to create and nurture characters I think it would have been stronger.
The second of the two is much more in his usual style, and it works much better. It’s a ten-pager about a young woman who discovers she bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain porn actress, and all the problems that causes her with men throughout her young adulthood. It’s the kind of intimate, minor-key short work that Tomine has always done extremely well, going all the way back to his mini-comics, and seems almost calculated to remind readers of what he used to do in early issues of Optic Nerve, before he made a full issue of Summer Blonde, poured three issues into Homecoming, and tossed off Scenes from an Impending Marriage.
I guess that means all parts of Optic Nerve #12 trade in nostalgia, and I think we can only assume there’s a good chance we never see another magazine-format issue from Tomine again. That makes me even sadder.
Soap and Water chapter 21 is now posted at Red Lemonade. E-reader versions are on the Soap and Water page here as usual. Also newly on that page is a podcast of the first chapter I just recorded. Hopefully it won’t be too difficult for you guys to download and listen to should that be what you want to do. More chapters will be following as quickly as I can get them done. And a third thing newly on that page is a way to sign up to receive email updates when I post new chapters, should you somehow not already be on my email list.
I’ve also got a blog post up on Red Lemonade now about why I chose to serialize the novel rather than putting it all up at once.
I have the feeling that I’ve outstripped readers’ ability to keep up, or perhaps over-pestered my email list (a big email marketing faux pas). So I’m going to throttle down the pace of publishing for a little while: the next chapter won’t appear until at least next week, possibly two weeks from now.
Thanks as always for reading, sharing, and commenting!