Tag: Alison Bechdel

Best American Comics 2011 and FreakAngels TPB vol. 6

by on Oct.25, 2011, under Comics

A week ago I went to a panel discussion for the release of America’s Best Comics 2011, hosted by the year’s editor Alison Bechdel and featuring contributors Gabrielle Bell and Kevin Mutch.

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.

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The Impostor’s Daughter

by on Oct.31, 2009, under Comics

Imposter cover

It’s probably unfair to compare The Impostor’s Daughter by Laurie Sandell to the best piece of graphic writing in the last ten years (and one of the best comics ever), Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. I wouldn’t think it was particularly informative if someone criticized my writing by pointing out that it doesn’t stack up to Joseph Conrad. But the comparison is dominating my thinking about Sandell’s book, probably because both Fun Home and The Impostor’s Daughter are memoirs about fathers and daughters, and largely about how each daughter’s relationship with her highly erudite father influences her understanding of her own sexuality.

Sandell’s father was a con man. He invented a distinguished academic history to get teaching jobs, and then when his resume was revealed as a fake he claimed to his family that he was fired for being a conservative. He told his daughter extravagant war stories about his time in the Argentine army and in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, when in truth he was a deserter from Argentina and never went to Vietnam. He applied for credit cards in his daughters’ and wife’s names and maxed them out. He convinced family friends to make investments with him and made off with the money.

Relatively early in the book, if not relatively early in her life, Sandell realizes her father’s a serial liar and exposes his history in an anonymous article in her unnamed magazine. Her father is devastated, and repeatedly threatens to kill himself. But she hires a private investigator and keeps digging into his past.

Meanwhile she’s in an on-again, off-again long-distance relationship with an aspiring movie director in Los Angeles, and developing her own career as a celebrity interviewer for Glamour . She’s also developing an addiction to Ambien that lands her in rehab for about the last 40 pages of the book. There she learns to let go of her anger toward her father and comes to believe in God. She also breaks up with her long-distance boyfriend and decides to write the book we now hold.

As therapy? That leaves us, the readers, with what? That’s my first major frustration with the book: Sandell promises us answers about this mysterious figure at the center of her existence, and we end up getting a rehab confessional in which she has to let go of her quest for answers. That’s great for her. She’s not addicted to Ambien anymore and she’s found God. But it’s an AA sharing session, not a satisfying memoir.

Here’s where the comparison to Fun Home begins to help me make sense of my dissatisfaction. Every time Sandell’s father appears, we hear all about how he makes her feel, usually bad. Same thing with her boyfriend (who figures so large in the book but is now gone from her life, leaving no specific trace she can mention to justify his oversized presence in the narrative). She is heroine and victim in every scene.

Bechdel’s book circles around and around in time, using literary references—especially to Proust and James Joyce—to depict her father as a tragic figure. Her mother too, to a certain extent. That, ultimately, is where I think Sandell comes up short. It’s not so much that Bechdel, the lifelong comic author, operates on a plane of sophistication several steps above Sandell, the Glamour celebrity interviewer drawing her first major work. It’s that Bechdel works much, much harder to make us sympathize with her father, to understand the limitations he placed on himself. She seems to be writing from a place of greater equanimity, in which she can accept her father’s great intellectual and emotional influence on her. As a result, her father is a recognizably complex human being.

Sandell seems not to have reached that place. Her book is all about trying to fight her father’s influence, and as such he remains a mustache-twirling villain to the end, a domineering, manipulative monster, even as she claims to have kicked free of him through rehab.

Preview here.

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