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Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City

by on May.05, 2012, under Comics

The last book of Guy Delisle’s I reviewed was about his time in Burma, and when I wrote about it I had mixed feelings about his customary form, which is to string together four- to eight-page travel vignettes almost exclusively focused on his day-to-day experiences, using what he sees or hears as an opening to discuss some broader phenomenon about the culture he’s visiting. His stance is always that of a sincerely interested, naive tourist rather than a journalist, and I felt that it simultaneously  showed too much humility (in that he declined to speak for Burma) and not enough (in that he also gave space to things like his problems with air conditioning).

On the whole, though, I liked Burma Chronicles. I just wanted even more about the country. It was a closed, mysterious society and I was curious.

I came to his new book Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City with exactly the opposite predisposition. Few countries on earth receive as much consistent media attention as Israel, and its history and conflicts have already been the subject of countless books, including graphic works by some of my favorite (Joe Sacco) and least favorite (Sarah Glidden) comic book authors. I had no curiosity left about it.

As it turns out, that makes it the perfect subject for Delisle’s interested tourist routine, in part because he is a keen observer of details it turned out I had never seen before. Rather than dramatize big injustices, like Sacco, or grapple with the whole arc of modern Israeli history, like Glidden, he focuses on small ironies and oddities.

When he visits Hebron, for example, he does discuss the ongoing conflict between settlers and Palestinian residents, but does so by remarking that there are certain streets Palestinians cannot use, and that the one they can use that runs next to settlers’ homes has been roofed with netting to catch the garbage settlers try to throw down from their windows. He visits a settlement near where he’s living in East Jerusalem and notes that many Arab Christians are living there, attracted by the cheap rent. “It’s like we’re resettling the settlements!” laughs his host.

Overall, then, he presents a picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of its effect on daily life, both in Israel and in the West Bank, which turns out to be fascinating and darkly funny. (He is never able to get permission to visit Gaza, and he guesses that the Israeli official who denies that permission does so because he thinks Delisle is Sacco.)

Three elements stuck out for me in particular.

First, his year in Israel overlapped with Operation Cast Lead, and he does an incredible job of describing the surreality of going about his daily routine while a war takes place just a short drive away. One striking sequence has him and a friend at the beach, watching fighter jets go past en route to Gaza.

Second, the wall encircling Palestinians in the West Bank. He talks about it only occasionally, but is always trying to sketch it, and it shows up constantly in his descriptions of other events. It hangs over everything else silently, just as he must have experienced it.

Third, Delisle is fair-minded, and makes a point to present what he sees as the best aspects of Israeli society. Specifically he points out that the Israelis can be more critical of their government or of Israeli extremists than any American media outlet would ever dare to be.

On December 4, settlers occupying a building in central Hebron were evacuated by the Israeli army. The settlers put up a fierce fight, and six soldiers were injured during the operation. Other settlers responded with violent attacks on Arab families, all under the eyes of journalists. The story made the front page of the papers. The vast majority of Israelis vigorously disapprove of the extreme behavior of the Hebron settlers. In a statement following these incidents, Ehud Olmert spoke of “pogroms” perpetrated by Jews against Arabs. Harsh words, deliberately used by the prime minister to make an impression.

Elsewhere you might think twice before accusing Jews of carrying out pogroms… In Israel, it’s not an issue.

Delisle is interested in Israel in all its diversity. He visits the Samaritans, the Armenian Church, a Bedouin village, the Dome of the Rock. He tours an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. He even goes on a propaganda bus tour organized by a pro-settler group. In the end it is clear where his sympathies lie, and above all who he sees as villains. But the personal travelogue format allows him to be fair about all he does experience without having to throw in a lot of caveats about all he doesn’t, and I felt like he showed me a great many new things about a subject I’d thought I was sick of.

PDF preview here.

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Zahra’s Paradise

by on Dec.05, 2011, under Comics

 

I think I had tried and exhausted everything else. I had tried protests, I had tried petitions, I had tried academia, I had tried every possible language and way—and I was so frustrated. … Finding some way to express emotion, love and rage and contradiction and horror and anger and devotion in a medium that would be fast. … I have made documentary films, and with documentary films you have to lug a camera… The characters have to be present. You have to pay for the film and the light and the sound and everything has to be perfect… [W]ith the graphic novel … all you really need is your imagination and a pencil.

This is from a KPFA-Pacifica radio interview with Amir, the pseudonymous writer of Zahra’s Paradise, which lived as a comic serialized online for nearly two years until it was collected into a print form by First Second Books this month. (In its original, online incarnation readers helped with translation, making it available in thirteen languages so far.)

The book follows on the heels of Oil & Water as part of a new strain in comic books, graphic journalism, whatever you choose to call it. Political cartoons may be the oldest form of comics, but it’s only in the last decade that long-form graphic storytelling has looped back around and become overtly political once more.

Of course Zahra’s Paradise isn’t journalism. Amir is an exile, so direct documentary agitprop wasn’t possible for him. As he told KPFA:

We would get snippets of: oh, the grieving mothers are in the park. Oh, there are people outside Evin prison. Oh, the judiciary just lied about the rapes in the prison. So it was about putting the fragments together … and coming up with a composite character.

Nevertheless, his composite fictional story aims for as much concrete, verifiable truth as possible. The collected edition of Zahra’s Paradise concludes with nearly 30 pages of straight prose notes and documentation, followed by a complete printing of the Omid Memorial, an ongoing list of all the people killed by the Iranian government since the 1979 revolution—16,901 names in tiny print, page after page.

In that sense Zahra’s Paradise is like The Battle of Algiers, another explicitly political fictional work that ends with scenes from real history. But of course The Battle of Algiers ends with a victory, while Zahra’s Paradise ends with loss.

If I’ve held back on describing the narrative, it’s because it’s deceptively simple. It begins on June 16, 2009, the day after one of the earliest and largest election protests in Freedom Square. Mehdi, a nineteen-year-old university student, was at that protest and hasn’t come home. His mother Zahra and his brother, the unnamed narrator, are worried about him and try to find out what’s happened.

That’s it, but that basic motivation allows Amir and his artist collaborator Khalil (another pseudonym) to create a full portrait of the horror of daily life in Tehran during the repression that followed the protests. Zahra goes to the hospital, where she sees Revolutionary Guards dragging injured kids from their beds to be arrested. She goes to the notorious Evin prison, where they won’t tell her anything. She visits the morgue and sees the bodies of young people beaten to death, and drives home under the shadow of a pair of gay men hanged from cranes. She gets a bureaucratic runaround at the Hall of Justice. A copy-shop owner who does nothing more than print a “missing” flying for her is beaten by Basij thugs, his shop smashed. She meets a young man who says he shared a cell with Mehdi in Evin; he’s traumatized from being raped by the guards.

Finally, through an intrigue involving a prison official’s mistress, the brother manages to hack Evin’s records. He confirms that Mehdi is dead and buried in a secret grave in Zahra’s Paradise, the biggest cemetary in Tehran, along with dozens of others like him. The family manages to get his body released, and at his funeral Zahra pours forth a four-page poetic lament, during which Khalil’s art, typically restrained, becomes as florid as the prose, ending with a full-page vision of Iran on fire.

It’s a blistering, passionate conclusion, I think far beyond where a writer coming from an exclusively Western tradition would have felt comfortable going. But it represents a real movement of highly demonstrative, publicly mourning mothers from the weeks after the government’s violent backlash. See, for example, this widely circulated video of Neda’s mother at her funeral.

Alyssa Rosenberg recently argued that more politically aware art is often better art. Yet as a middlebrow art form comics/graphic novels have tended to stick to the personal. I’m glad to see more and more forays into the explicitly political—into more active engagement with the world—and Zahra’s Paradise is an inspiring place to start.

Read sample chapters here and here.

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Big Questions Collected Graphic Novel

by on Sep.21, 2011, under Comics

Just a quick hit to note that the new graphic novel collection of Big Questions is finally here. I reviewed the whole series back in April when the final issue came out. It’s one of the best comics of the last ten years and one of the few collections of this year you really must buy.

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Golly TPB Vol. 1: Catching Hell

by on Jun.13, 2011, under Comics

I’m not sure what spurred me to buy this first Golly trade paperback. Possibly a dim memory associated with author Phil Hester, who I had an idea that I liked. (It turns out I do like him. He wrote The Atheist and The Coffin, both of which I loved though they disappeared from print far too fast.) In any case I bought it and got one of those rare and overwhelmingly welcome surprises that keep me taking chances on unknown comics even though, you know, Sturgeon’s Law.

Because Golly is really fun. It feels as if someone took Garth Ennis’s Preacher and drained out all the meanspiritedness, sadistic jokes, and sexism.

Golly Munhollen is a carnie. He grabs the circus strongwoman’s ass one day, she knocks him out, and he’s visited by an angel who informs him that the Apocalypse has been postponed indefinitely due to lack of interest, and in the meanwhile he’s been appointed the clean-up squad for all those demons left running around the world. When Golly asks the logical question—why me and not someone smarter—the angel tells him that from a heavenly perspective the difference between him and a genius is negligible.

“It would be like asking you to look into a puddle and select the smartest amoeba,” it says. “You will do.”

Now, as a way of bypassing the usual pitfalls of origin stories, this is simply brilliant. It provides an inarguable logic for choosing our hero and gets it out of the way fast. It also sets up a recurring gag in which the angel is much more interested in mundane elements of Earthly existence than it is in Golly.

“I have fulfilled my mission with you, but I have more important tasks at hand,” the angel tells him. “I am currently engaged in a complex and taxing endeavor on another part of your planet… I am bringing an earthworm into existence in Australia.”

The pace is brisk, with two demonic forces vanquished in the five issues collected here. Golly’s carnie friends are an easygoing, entertaining band of demon-hunters and Hester never overindulges in flashy action sequences, preferring to linger in dialogue in the moments before and after them. Think trailer-park Buffy, perhaps.

No long-term arcs have kicked in yet, and presumably if Golly ever manages to put out more issues Hester will have to come up with some eventually. These five issues came out between August 2008 and May 2010, though, which is a) very slow and b) not terribly encouraging for future installments. For now, I’ll just recommend that everybody pick up the trade and maybe Image will pay Hester to write us some more.

Preview here.

PS: It occurs to me that this would be a great candidate for Josh K-Sky’s quest to turn superhero comics into TV shows. Granted, it’s not a commercial success as a comic so I’m not sure who would want to option it, but Josh, get on that.

PPS: It further occurs to me that such a show would be pretty similar to Reaper, with the added benefit of being set in a circus rather than a big-box store. Reaper should have been a better show than it was. Spotty writing is partly to blame, but there was enough good writing that I think it’s fairer to blame much more Bret Harrison’s complete lack of charisma and actually negative chemistry with Missy Peregrym. Ray Wise and Rick Gonzalez made me smile every time they were onscreen. Give me Golly with Rick Gonzalez as Golly Munhollen and Ray Wise as the voice of his sidekick friend’s ashes in the PBR can. Make it happen, Hollywood!

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CAGEMATCH: Hector vs. Hrishi

by on May.30, 2011, under Los Angeles, music

I think Hector Tobar is right about this:

Don’t ever say: “L.A. doesn’t have any seasons.” Our seasons just don’t look like New England seasons. Instead, we have a season when the jacarandas bloom (right now) and a season when ash falls from the sky. We have a season of gloomy mornings (which isn’t in winter) and a season of Technicolor sunsets. We have a season when Mt. Baldy is covered in snow — and a season when you can’t see Mt. Baldy at all.

But I love The One AM Radio’s song “In A City Without Seasons.”

Contradictions! We haz ‘em. The new album, Heaven Is Attached By A Slender Thread, is my first real ear crush of 2011. It’s ambivalent about L.A. through and through — in “Plans” Hrishi sings, “Fuck this town and all the things I have been / I am leaving here as fast as I can” — and I’m not. But I love driving the streets to his despair at them.

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BACKLOG! The Dylan Dog Case Files, The Finder Library, Blue Estate, The Incredibly Fantastic Adventures of Maureen Dowd, Empire State

by on Apr.25, 2011, under Comics

I’ve got a big backlog of comics piled up to review, so rather than try to give them all a fair shake I’m going to do quick takes on all of them, starting with the ones I like.

The movie version coming out on Friday looks like it’s going to be bad, but at least it’s prompted Dark Horse to bring out a fat new collection of the classic Italian comic Dylan Dog, written by Tiziano Sclavi. Starting in the late 1980s, the collection proceeds through seven increasingly off-the-wall Twilight-Zone-like horror tales. The best is the fifth one, which is bonkers metafiction, but all are good fun.

Preview here.

Carla Speed McNeil doesn’t have a movie deal yet, but she’s still my new hero. She’s been self-publishing her sci-fi comic Finder since the mid-1990s, and since about five years ago publishing it on the Web with print versions only for the equivalent of trade paperbacks. Like many readers, I’m sure, I’ve only just now learned about her from the new Dark Horse collection of her first three books.

A lot of science fiction builds worlds intended to reflect real-life political concerns. McNeil’s stuff is much more character-centric. She tells stories that could be told in a realist mode, only they happen to be set in a rich, complex alien society. There are pages and pages of endnotes that reveal the depth of intention behind every tossed-off detail (and that helped me make sense of motivations and assumptions McNeil barely touches on). It’s grown-up sci-fi without any hand-holding. I love it.

Preview here.

Blue Estate has nice enough art, but essentially it’s a by-the-numbers noir detective story that spends far, far too much time on exposition. Isn’t the point of detective fiction to show the detective finding clues rather than having him reveal the full story in an omniscient flashback? Scriptwriter Andrew Osborne needs a review on point-of-view characters.

I wanted to like The Incredibly Fantastic Adventures of Maureen Dowd, and it does give the satisfaction of popping Maureen Dowd into lingerie every few pages. I like the idea of her being a gun-toting badass, even. But the premise that she’s a crusading journalist with an insatiable need to expose the misdeeds of the powerful—that’s too much to swallow. This is a woman whose stock in trade is high school metaphors, who wrote a whole book about how feminism is to blame for her shitty dating life. She’s not out convincing Scooter Libby to spill his guts about exposing Valerie Plame. She’s just not.

Preview here.

In Empire State: A Love Story (Or Not) a boy loses the girl he has a crush on when she moves from Oakland to New York. He decides he must have her, writes her a love letter, and hops on a Greyhound bus across the country. But when he arrives he finds she already has a boyfriend and his letter has been lost.

I didn’t have strong feelings about the book one way or another, to be honest. I identified with Jimmy, the main character, in that I’ve also written ill-advised love letters in my life, albeit at a much younger age than he. And I appreciated author Jason Shiga’s out-of-order storytelling as an experiment. But I didn’t feel there were any consequences to anything that happened, so nothing in the story mattered, told in order or not. So as long as we’re doing remedial courses, Jason Shiga needs a review on storytelling structure: he has a good ground situation, vehicle, and building conflict, and yet no resolution at all. A character who’s been inert through age 25 goes on a cross-country odyssey to declare his love—and nothing happens.

 

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Big Questions

by on Apr.19, 2011, under Comics

Let’s say we think of Chris Ware as the comic book medium’s James Joyce. Like Ulysses, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth used a pathetic Everyman as a focal point for wildly disparate formal pastiches drawn from its medium’s whole history. Joyce reenacted the history of Western prose; Ware combined elements of old magazines and comics—everything from Little Nemo in Dreamland to the ads in Silver Age comic books—to reflect his middle-aged hero, stuck in the present day but fantasizing imaginary pasts and futures. Jimmy Corrigan even delves into many of the same themes as Ulysses: fatherhood and the lack thereof, alienation, the disconnect between desire and reality…

That makes modern-day Chicago the equivalent of Joyce’s Ireland, and Anders Nilsen comics’ Samuel Beckett. A writer who joined a literary scene that already had a reigning Joyce and ran full-tilt in the opposite direction.

Like Jimmy Corrigan, Nilsen’s long-running series Big Questions had a small, independent origin. The first Jimmy Corrigan pages were published in Newcity, the Chicago alternative weekly, and Nilsen self-published early issues of Big Questions cheaply, using grant funds from the City of Chicago and the Illinois Arts Council. He switched to Drawn & Quarterly with issue #7 and his popularity has slowly grown, but it’s been limited by the fact that you couldn’t read the first part of the story unless you could somehow get your hands on those early issues. (I have most of them, but I’ve never even seen #1 and #2.)

At last, though, Nilsen has wrapped things up, more than a decade after he started. The final issue just came out and a full collection will be published in July, giving readers who aren’t obsessive collectors the chance to appreciate the whole sweep of the thing.

And like I said, what we get to see is his bid to be comics’ Beckett. Where Ware elaborated, Nilsen strips away: Big Questions is drawn in black and white, with scarcely any shading. Its backgrounds consist of a few trees, or some debris, or a blast crater. Quite often, especially in later issues, he does away with panel borders, leaving his figures afloat in a sea of white. He likes to show long sequences of repeated motion broken down to simple snapshots, which can have the same comedic effect as, say, the sucking-stones sequence in Molloy.

He follows Beckett, too, in reducing characters from Joyce/Ware’s full people in a complex world to simplified, stunted beings in a world of limited possibilities. Think of the distance from Stephen Dedalus and Leo Bloom to Didi and Gogo, or Hamm. The main characters in Big Questions are mostly finches, living in a forest that could be anywhere and trying to come to terms with inexplicable disruptions in their lives. An airplane drops a bomb that fails to explode. The birds gather around it and some believe it’s a magical egg. They stand guard over it and it explodes, killing many of them. The same airplane crashes into a farmhouse and the pilot emerges. Now there’s a schism among the finches; some worship the giant bird and its mysterious human chick, while others, a minority, follow the idiot boy who used to live in that farmhouse.

The themes are, indeed, the Big Questions: the nature of existence as apprehended by beings of limited knowledge. Just as the finches struggle to make sense of the giant bird and its lethal egg, so, by implication, do humans struggle to make sense of their world and its creator, if it has one. One of the birds even conceives a finchly version of Plato’s Cave to drive home the parallel. God could be an idiot, wandering the forest eating bugs. He could be as unhinged as the pilot, who can’t tell reality from his dreams. Or He could be a pair of swans who appear in the dreams of all creatures and welcome them to death. Some react to these possibilities with false certainty and rigid faith, others with skepticism, or with bewilderment and guilt, or with simple hedonism, or with a search for ecstatic transcendence.

Think Beckett meets Beatrix Potter, adorable little creatures on a bleak, featureless plain, staring into the abyss—but hopeful nonetheless, in its own way. “We can’t ever really know the outcome of our actions,” one of them concludes, “but if we act earnestly, and do our best, everything will turn out right in the end.” Of course the bird saying that happens to be responsible for the deaths of many others. And dead herself.

The complete Big Questions will be available in July from Drawn & Quarterly. Download a PDF preview here.

UPDATE: The collected Big Questions is here. Buy it.

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The Unwritten TPB Vol. 3: Dead Man’s Knock

by on Mar.28, 2011, under Comics

At the end of my review of the first Unwritten trade paperback I wrote:

The Unwritten appears to be genuinely interested in the power of narratives to shape the real world as well as their fictional one. This could be one of the many cases where authors promise more depth than they can deliver. But at least [Mike] Carey and [Peter] Gross have the ambition to make the promise.

It’s been a while coming, but in this third volume The Unwritten does finally seem to be delivering on that promise.

For those who haven’t been keeping up, here’s the basic setup: Tom Taylor may or may not be the incarnation of Tommy Taylor, the main character in his vanished father’s fantasy novels. He’s pursued by a worldwide cabal that twists storytelling to keep people placated and powerless. That was the situation in the first volume, and the second volume largely treaded water. The cabal was still after Tommy; meanwhile various metafictional games and pastiches were going on and Tom didn’t understand how he related to his fictional alter ego or what his father wanted him to do.

The one promising tidbit came when Lizzie, the woman sent by his father to guide Tom, refers to him as “the Logos—the word made flesh.”

In Volume 3, that religious echo is amplified to a full song. The long-awaited fourteenth book in the Tommy Taylor saga is released on the same night its author, Tom’s father, is murdered. In it Tommy dies and is reborn to deliver a message of universal forgiveness and love. The fictional character spawns a real-life religion, with online fans claiming that Tom Taylor never died in a Volume 2 attack we know he did in fact survive, and that he will return as a savior, as Tommy.

Look, I’m a Jew, and pretty much an atheist. I still like well-done Christ imagery. Especially since the implication of Mike Carey turning Tommy into a Christ figure is that the original Christ story—the foundation myth of Christianity, at least as it’s currently understood—is a distortion perpetrated by a cabal of capitalists who run the world.

Now, the idea that modern Christians have gone astray from the goodhearted teachings of Jesus is not a new one by any means. But Carey is handling it adroitly. More to the point, adding that theme to the storyline of The Unwritten adds the urgency I’d been waiting for.

The pastiches are still there, of course, and they’re as smartly done as ever. One of the issues collected in this trade tells the life history of a woman experiencing a mental breakdown as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, a terrific marriage of form and content.

Only now there’s quite a bit more going on outside of the pastiches, enough to make The Unwritten a title you really should be reading.

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Daytripper TPB

by on Feb.09, 2011, under Comics

I had to read the Daytripper trade paperback twice before I could make up my mind whether or not it works. The book is structured around a strong, repeating device that is never overtly explained, and I had to decide whether I thought it justified itself.

The device is this: Every issue of Daytripper tells an episode in the life of the protagonist, Brás, at a different age. Brás starts his working life as an obituary writer, then becomes a novelist in his thirties; at the end of each issue he dies and we read the opening lines of his obituary. Though the episodes are told out of order, we realize very quickly that we are to read each one as if none of the preceding deaths happened, but everything else we’ve read about did.

In the end, I decided that device not only succeeds, but does so beautifully.

I had two reasons. The first and easier to explain is simply that their outstanding art builds up their credibility as storytellers enough that I’m willing to swallow things I might have resisted from lesser writers.

The Brazilian wonder twins Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá are best known for doing the art in other writers’ stories (Moon on Casanova, Bá on Casanova and The Umbrella Academy), though we’ve seen from their introductory collection De:Tales that they’re more than capable of telling their own. They’re in demand for good reason. They’ve developed an instantly recognizable style of long-limbed, broad-shouldered, highly expressive human figures, and they understand much better than most comic book artists how to manipulate the composition of panels to draw the eye where they want. They use only as much background as they need to set a scene and yet their pages always feel full, even when there is little action, or mainly internal action.

Beyond their simple artistic talent, though, I realized on second reading that those backgrounds away from which they directed my attention were actually full of carefully placed details whose significance is only revealed in other episodes. Moon and Bá always know exactly where they are in their hero’s life and how the current story relates to what comes before and after, both chronologically and in their own non-chronological construction. Technology changes unobtrusively in concert with Brás’s age. Brás’s wife appears in an episode before the one about their meeting but her face is artfully hidden, so that in that later episode Brás and the reader both see her for the first time. Brás meets his father after a big event—in a setting that reveals it to be right after his death in a different episode.

It’s reassuring to a reader when authors show this much control and planning in an unconventionally told story. It becomes easier to give them credit for knowing what they’re doing with everything else too.

And once they’d earned that trust, I was able to consider the obituary device seriously. That led me to a second reason for buying it: it’s thematically consistent with the rest of the action. Episode after episode in Brás’s life confronts the same central issue of loving in the face of death. Brás has many loves in his life—a girlfriend, a wife, a best friend, a father, a mother, a son, a dog—and there are episodes touching on each of them. Brás is built up as the sum of these many loves and remembered in relation to them in each of his obituaries.

I’ve struggled to find a better way than this to describe the book’s thematic arc, but I kept coming back to the thought that if it were possible to summarize it properly in a short review, there would be no need for fiction like it to exist. The best I can do is to describe the feeling it gave me: that it’s good to be alive, though we could die at any moment. It’s a remarkable book. You should buy it and read it many times.

Preview here.

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Cages

by on Oct.11, 2010, under Comics

I didn’t know about Dave McKean’s Cages when it first came out in ten issues in the early 1990s, and when the hardcover collection was finally published in 1998 it had a cover price of something like $50, so I couldn’t have it. Then one it went out of print you had to shell out even more to buy a copy and I threw up my hands.

It’s finally back now in a softcover edition for the more livable price of $30, and at that price it’s a steal. Cages is a masterwork by an immensely creative young artist/author, written at a time when graphic novels were only just starting to realize their creative potential.

It centers on three artists—a painter, a jazz musician/poetry slammer, and a writer—who share an apartment building. The painter is at a point of transition, trying to rediscover his abilities. The writer’s last book, called “Cages,” so incensed the public that he’s now on the run like Salman Rushdie, under the protection of goons who confiscate everything he loves. The musician is touched by God, as they used to say, and tunes stones when he’s not awing audiences in the nearby cafe.

It would do the book a serious injustice to try to describe its plot any more than that. It’s basically a series of linked meditations on creation, some fables, some monologues, some poems. Even the poems are good, and none of it holds the reader’s hand. I called graphic novels a middlebrow art form in a recent post, but what McKean is attempting—and succeeding at—is decidedly highbrow, with real intellectual heft to it.

The art is as varied and powerful as the text, as you’d expect from the guy who did all those beloved Sandman covers. Most of the basic story is told with black-and-white ink drawings, but there are glossy color interludes in many different styles, including some photomontages that I have to think predate Photoshop or other software tools that would today make them easy to assemble and yet probably suck the life out of them.

I think I’ve only unequivocally recommended buying two comics this year. Cages makes a third. Order it now, before it goes back out of print. It’s that good.

The preview at the Amazon page was the only one I could find.

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