Archive for March, 2012
Hunter S. Thompson is sort of like Ernest Hemingway or Jack Kerouac: his voice is so strong and unmistakable that when you immerse yourself in his writing, you have to work hard to avoid becoming just another acolyte. Look what’s happened to Johnny Depp. He played Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, became such a devotee that he got The Rum Diary made, and according to the foreword to Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson, he is now trying to get The Curse of Lono turned into a movie too.
That foreword is written by Alan Rinzler, one of Thompson’s many editors and collaborators over the years, and it’s an unforgiving, fascinating piece of writing. I have heard at least one other interview with an editor of Thompson’s (John A. Walsh), and the picture of him that emerges is pretty consistent: he was capable of brilliant writing, but he was also an alcoholic, an addict, and an incredibly difficult human being to deal with. His collaborators miss his talent but aren’t surprised he killed himself, and didn’t necessarily feel close to him personally.
So here’s a man who inserted himself into his journalism, and wrote about himself and his opinions extensively, in a way that bewitches readers into wanting to be like him, but in a way that also doesn’t square with the accounts of those who worked with him. Is the heroic drug use in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas less heroic if you know that his immoderation eventually killed him? Is his relentless pursuit of Nixon in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 less compeling when you know what a political crank he became in later years?
I give Gonzo credit for at least raising these questions. Writer Will Bingley wants to put Thompson’s life into context, and you can see him fighting to do it page by page, to convey Thompson’s irresistible appeal while at the same time making sure we understand that the binge of Las Vegas came after months and months of struggling and failing to report on the Chicano Pride movement in East L.A., and his partner in crime in Las Vegas, Oscar Acosta, was his main contact and friend there. Many times (as with this example) he succeeds.
He also happens to know how to write for the comic book page, and so keeps his text spare, giving Anthony Hope-Smith’s excellent art room to breathe. Hope-Smith never catches his figures straight on, preferring to draw them from slightly above or below, and he uses those changing angles to create dynamism and a sense of unbalance even in scenes where Thompson is sitting still.
But it was in examining these drawings that I first began to understand what was bugging me about Gonzo.
See, Hope-Smith’s drawing of Hunter S. Thompson is preceded by two massively famous, cartoon Thompson avatars: Uncle Duke and Spider Jerusalem. It’s impossible to look at Hope-Smith’s drawings of Hunter S. Thompson and not think of how Garry Trudeau and Darick Robertson drew him. Similarly, it’s impossible to read Bingley’s words and not think of the cartoon version of Hunter S. Thompson the man created for himself.
All those cartoon versions are simply way, way more fun than Gonzo‘s straight-ahead truth. The book would have been better served not trying to compete with them. I’m imagining a drawn version of an older Thompson, during his waning, struggling years, or even a younger Thompson, during the formative time in Puerto Rico that he novelized as The Rum Diary. Gonzo does give some pages to each, but it devotes the bulk of its attention to Thompson’s most creatively fertile years, his peak from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. That’s exactly the Thompson we already know intimately, and no matter how Bingley fights to give us a fresh perspective it can’t help but feel a little familiar.
Brian K. Vaughan is an unusual case in the modern comic-book world. He’s one of a very small number of creators beloved by both mainstream readers and what I guess we could call “literary” comic book types, someone who’s had commercial success pursuing his own vision, using no one else’s superheroes. Roughly speaking the generation before his had five guys like that (the British big five: Moore, Ennis, Ellis, Morrison, and Gaiman), while this one has only three: Brian K. Vaughan, Bill Willingham, and Brian Wood. Willingham and Wood both have ongoing titles, but ever since Ex Machina ended, about 18 months ago, we’ve all been waiting for what Vaughan would do next.
The immodestly-named Saga is what, and I’m pretty excited about it. Where both of his previous big projects (Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man) were constrained at least a little by their ties to the real world, Saga is a leap into pure fabulism. There are warring clans on faraway planets, clashes between magicians and TV-headed robots, and a baby born to parents from enemy sides. In that broad sense it’s a bit stitched together using off-the-shelf sci-fi tropes, but the specifics, and the way Vaughan handles them, feel original and specific.
Part of that can be attributed to artist Fiona Staples, in particular her character design, and part of it to the controlled way Vaughan doles out information in this opening issue. He knows enough to highlight the elements that are original rather than the many borrowed from convention.
I was never as big a fan of Y: The Last Man as some, and as I wrote in my wrap-up review, I appreciated Ex Machina more as a reflection of New York than as a well-controlled complete story. Both titles started strong and then lost focus, so it’s hard not to be apprehensive that the same could happen to Saga. Nevertheless, it is starting quite strong, in many ways stronger than either of the last two. Again, I partly credit Fiona Staples, whose art is miles better than Pia Guerra’s (Y) and considerably better than Tony Harris’s (Ex Machina). Better art makes a richer world.
One little bonus: by the standards of the current market Saga #1 is cheap, $2.99 for 64 pages with no ads. Image is making it as easy as they can for you to check it out, and I recommend you take them up on it when the second printing hits stores tomorrow.
Short preview here.
MAJOR BACKLOG: Goliath, Afrika, Marzi, The Blue Dragon, The Bulletproof Coffin Disinterred #1-2, Mondo #1, Fatale #1-3, Rachel Rising #1-6
A whole bunch of comics have been piling up in my office, eying me, giving me guilt trips about not writing their reviews. So let me just plow through a few of them in capsule.
Goliath has a solid concept: Goliath doesn’t actually want to fight. He’s tricked into it by his captain, who has sold the Philistine king on the idea of ending the war with the Israelites by menacing them with a champion they dare not face. And it’s good for some solid laughs, especially in the beginning.
But author Tom Gauld doesn’t account enough for the fact that we all know how the story ends, so there’s no suspense, and in the absence of suspense he needs to work harder to keep things entertaining. Goliath sits around and does nothing waiting for the Israelites to respond to his challenge, and, um, that’s a little boring? The Goliath story offers so many juicy thematic possibilities, and as far as I can tell he doesn’t pick them up. The whole book never advances beyond its concept.
PDF preview here.
Belgian author/artist Hermann shows why he’s a comic-book legend in Europe with Afrika, first published in 2007 but newly translated into English for Dark Horse. It’s an impeccably told, beautifully painted tale about a park ranger and reporter in Africa who accidentally witness a government massacre and must go on the run.
Well-told, beautifully painted—and yet kind of anachronistic. Even for a Belgian born in 1938, 2007 seems too late to still be telling stories about white heroes against an African backdrop. That feels like something we were doing in 1967 and should have outgrown by now.
You’d think the story of a young girl’s perspective on the fall of Communism in 1980s Poland would be pretty gripping, right? It should have been, but about two-thirds of Marzi needed to be edited out. It seems like memoirist Marzena Sowa included every single last little detail she could remember about her childhood, and while some of these could have served to establish an atmosphere, all of them together crush her story under the weight of their triviality. I was angry at this book when I first got it, for having so little regard for its audience’s experience; now I just think of it as a wasted opportunity by a first-time author with a great personal story to tell and no editor to help her tell it well.
I’ve discussed why I don’t think comics translate to movies nearly as well as people expect them to; The Blue Dragon is an object lesson in how you can’t just translate any old dialogue to the comic book page either. Robert Lepage is apparently some kind of theater deity in Canada, but his talky dialogue just sits there, completely static and clunky, when it’s packed into comic book panels and dialogue bubbles, even though Fred Jourdain’s watercolor art is breathtakingly gorgeous. Too gorgeous, in fact, to pay attention to characters’ facial expressions. Play dialogue is designed for audiences that can’t see faces, but it seems perverse to translate that limitation to comics.
So far, rather than trying to continue the meta-story of the original Bulletproof Coffin limited series, in The Bulletproof Coffin Disinterred David Hine and Shaky Kane seem happy to tell weird little tales patterned on forgotten genres from the 1950s. Since said tales are so far a blast, I’m going with it.
When Ted McKeever’s last series META4 launched, I had no idea where it was going and remained in the dark right up until the end, when it made a half turn and became one of my favorite comics of 2011. Mondo is starting more conventionally (which says something about McKeever, given that it’s about a radioactive superchicken/man), and now more than ever I’m willing to hang on and see what he has in mind.
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, whose work I’ve loved in Criminal and liked okay in Incognito, take their signature noir style over to horror with Fatale. I haven’t figured it out yet, to be honest, and I think I’d recommend waiting for the trade to see if they can pull it all together in the end. There are multiple threads of story from different eras, and three issues in it’s still not at all clear how they relate to one another.
Another where I’d wait for the trade, fortunately due out in just a couple of weeks!—not because Terry Moore is unclear at all about what he’s doing but because he takes awhile to unfold his plot. But that plot is engrossing and hardly anyone does facial expression better. In fact, aspiring comic artists must check out his recent one-shots How to Draw Women and How to Draw Expressions (both available through his store, click on “Related Books”). Both give indispensable advice in areas where comics are too often lacking.
Let me start with the aspect of Dotter of her Father’s Eyes that I like best: the story of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia. To the extent Lucia is remembered at all today, it is as the girl who wanted to marry Samuel Beckett but ended up in an insane asylum. Authors Mary and Bryan Talbot do a great thing in reclaiming her story from that shallow half-memory, giving her autonomy and life as a character.
They trace her ambitions and rising stardom in the then brand-new field of modern dance. They show her struggling to gain her independence at a time when an independent career for an unmarried woman was barely thinkable, and they argue it was largely the hidebound conservatism of her father, the titan of Modernism, that held her back. Eventually, frustrated and stifled, she lashes out at her mother and is committed.
Less successful is the story Mary Talbot tells about her relationship with her own father, the Joyce scholar James Atherton. Apparently, like Joyce he was a monster to his daughter even as the world adored him. As I have complained before about these monster-parent memoirs, there is no resolution here apart from “and then I grew up.”
Least successful of all, though, is the very decision to run Lucia and Mary’s stories in parallel. Mary, who narrates her own story, never stops to comment on why she is also narrating the Lucia James story, or to speculate on why she got a happy ending and Lucia did not. Was it because she was better able to achieve her professional ambitions? She did after all become a relatively prolific academic author in her own right, publishing multiple works on feminism and culture. Was it because she got to marry the love of her life while Lucia didn’t?
Above all: what larger lessons does she want us to deduce from the bad parenting records of these two great men? Obviously what attracts a reader’s interest will be those great names, Joyce and in his wake Atherton. If we aren’t offered any lessons beyond the fact that often our idols have feet of clay, well, we kind of knew that already. If there was something more to be said about, I don’t know, the sexism inherent in the Joycean project, I wish Mary Talbot would have gone ahead and said it.
One final slight quibble: the art is for the most part quite good, especially in the Lucia sections. In the opening, though, and in all subsequent pages where we’re meant to be seeing present-day Mary, I think Bryan Talbot draws her too young-looking. On the one hand this is sort of charming, a man drawing the flattering portrait of his wife. But drawings in comics are also carriers of information, and I was literally lost until I figured out that the late-thirtiesish woman I saw in present-day scenes was supposed to be the same little girl who was about five or six in the early 1950s.