Tag: David Lapham
If I were a smarter critic I’d probably have something meaningful to say about the way zombies seem to be elbowing vampires aside in popular culture. Maybe everyone is just jumping on the success of The Walking Dead, but I don’t think so. I think there’s something about the zombie apocalypse that speaks to a post-foreclosure-crisis America full of zombie neighborhoods and zombie luxury highrises.
No time to get into it now, though. I’ve got a backlog to clear!
One of my favorite new ones in the zombie genre is the new limited series Fatima: The Blood Spinners from 20-year comic book master veteran Gilbert Hernandez. Not that Hernandez is doing anything all that groundbreaking here. One issue in, it’s a pretty simple story: an addictive drug turns users into zombies, and a classically buxom Gilbert Hernandez heroine aims to take down the crime lords who sell it. Yet Hernandez executes it with his typical skill and style. (EDIT: Issue 2 just came out and it’s doing weird things with pacing and story, so not really so conventional after all.)
Now, the last violent thing of his I wrote about, Speak of the Devil, went in a direction I didn’t much care for, so we’ll have to see whether this one works out.
If Fatima shows us a master confidently ripping through a genre convention he can handle easily, I think Dead Winter vol. 1 is much more a case of a journeyman using a genre to stretch his art and show us what he can do. This is a self-published book collecting an internet comic, and it shows off author/artist Dave Shabet’s strengths well. He brings in some nice little twists to the genre and memorable characters: a sassy kitten, a waitress who’s charmingly oblivious through the first stages of the zombie plague, and her evil, germophobic boss whom she fights off with the business end of her dirty mop. Much better than those, though, is his terrific, distinctive drawing style, which you can see evolving as the book progresses. There’s a lot of pencil shading, I think, all black and white except for the heroine’s bright red kerchief and the hero’s red sunglasses.
But I also hope Shabet continues to evolve to address a few things. I would like to see fewer panels per page to give his art room to breathe, for one thing. Shabet’s art is so shaded and active that nine or so panels, even on an oversized page, is dark and hard to read. This is generally not the case in the internet version, where he can set the panels against a black background to make them appear brighter—yet the transfer to print those black borders and dark panels seem over-packed.
I’d also like him to pay more attention to the basics of storytelling in an ongoing series: internal conflict and character motivation. Mere survival is obviously a strong enough motivation for a human being, but watching characters fight for survival page after page gets repetitive.
If I were writing a comic, though, I’d hire Shabet to draw it tomorrow.
All of Dead Winter can be read online.
All the points for originality in the zombie category, though, have to go to the limited series The New Deadwardians, now exactly halfway through its eight-issue run.
We’re in London in 1910. A zombie plague has carried off a good portion of the population; the zombies gather outside the city gates. To fight the zombies, the upper classes have turned themselves into vampires, but in a very repressed, English way. They even file down their canines to maintain a normal appearance. The lower classes that remain human live in their own, separate neighborhood. Chief Inspector George Suttle, an upper-crust vampire, has an impossible murder mystery to solve: a vampire is found dead, not killed by any of the three known methods (beheading, staking, or burning).
Writer Dan Abnett has written on dozens and dozens of titles, and shows his experience especially in his adeptness with exposition. He has a very full, complicated world to explain, and fits in all that information elegantly, almost always with action so it doesn’t bog things down.
I like it all a lot. Pick up the trade paperback when it arrives.
In some cases the difference between a zombie comic and a superhero comic simply comes down to how many people are affected. If every Tom, Dick, and Harry turns undead it’s not special, being normal is special. But if you’re the only one who can’t die, you’re a superhero.
That’s what happens to Alex King, the hero of Last Mortal. He’s an addict and small-time crook who gets involved in a deal gone wrong that kills his best friend. Overcome with guilt he tries to kill himself—and discovers that he can’t. So he does the only other thing he can and uses his immortality to take revenge on the crooked DA who set him up.
The best part of the collected hardcover, and a big part of the reason I’m reviewing it, is the bonus material at the back that shows the development of this concept from its earliest version, when writers John Mahoney and Filip Sablik were in middle school together. For middle schoolers, they were pretty damn good. They even include Keats in that early draft, which I assume must have come from their joint English class. Totally charming.
Meanwhile, Dan the Unharmable shows how a pretty much identical superhero concept can function totally differently with a change in tone. Last Mortal aims for gritty, noir realism. Dan the Unharmable aims for the ridiculous.
Dan is a private eye who just happens to be invulnerable. That leaves him wanting for nothing, so he takes cases for absurdly little money and prefers to loaf around and smoke weed most of the time. He’s forced into action, though, when a young woman shows up claiming to be his daughter and begging for help.
After Young Liars, David Lapham has been on a real tear of weirdness. There was the hard-to-decipher Sparta USA, and then he wrote for several of the gross, ultraviolent Crossed miniseries, which I think bled into his violent, nihilistic Caligula and the werewolf horror story he’s writing now, Ferals. Of them all, this is the one with a sense of humor, always a nice addition to weird and violent.
Having gained a certain amount of recognition with the relatively straight noir of Stray Bullets, David Lapham seems determined to drive his audiences crazy. I happened to love the surrealism of Young Liars, and I even enjoyed the bonkers post-apocalyptic world of Sparta USA. But for most comic book readers both were far too weird.
With Caligula, his new title from Avatar, I think he might believe he’s toned down the nuttiness to appeal to a wider audience. Lapham starts issue #1 with a simple revenge tale: a boy’s family is slaughtered by Caligula and his retinue, and the boy vows to kill all those responsible. He works his way through a couple of them, has sex with a guard to gain entrance to the emperor’s palace, and finally gets his chance alone with Caligula himself, stabbing him straight through the skull, from crown to throat.
The truth is, though, that when weird writers try to write something mainstream they often end up writing something that’s just as weird as their usual, only in a different way. I remember when my college writing professor John Crowley tried to write a bestseller. The result was The Translator, a book I absolutely love that was in some ways every bit as weird and hard to categorize as his other, more openly genre-bending stuff.
See, Caligula doesn’t die at the end of #1. He’s barely even fazed. In #2 he makes the boy one of his household slaves and forces him to undergo all sorts of humiliations—among other things, he straps him to the front of a chariot for a deadly race and allows a horse to rape him. Increasingly desperate attempts on Caligula’s life make it clear that he is the demigod he proclaims himself to be, or at least the tool of a demon passing itself off as a horse.
Caligula has long been a symbol of the complete moral decay of a society, and Lapham makes use of that symbol to the fullest. The emperor buys his power by giving the people a Coliseum full of the most depraved, bloody spectacles he can imagine, and needs to top himself again and again as audiences grow jaded. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine Lapham is aiming at America with that part.
What he’s driving at with the rest—the demon-horse and the emperor who can’t be killed—I guess we’ll have to wait and find out. I’m just glad he’s back and doing his thing.
I believe when last I wrote about David Lapham, I was raving about the close of his underappreciated surrealistic series Young Liars. Now he’s back with something equally weird but more along the lines of mythic allegory than surrealism.
Sparta, USA is a town of just under 10,000. It has a dozen major league pro football teams and 30 minor league ones. In Sparta, explains the advertising blurb, “they believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness through treachery, blackmail and murder – just like the Maestro taught them as he learned it from the U.S. President.”
Or as David Lapham himself described it:
An isolated town filled with young people and with the veneer of normalcy, but underneath they’re all being taught to kill each other. Why? Where are they? Why are they all young? And why is there a big red guy and a big blue guy walking around without everyone pointing and screaming?
Look, nobody said it was a subtle allegory. But there are yetis.
It’s a limited series, so they’ll wrap the whole story in six issues. The art’s nothing special but, you know, whacked-out political allegory and yetis. C’mon.
UPDATE: I don’t know why I was rattling on about yetis. They’re barely in the story and I don’t actually care about yetis.
Preview below the fold.
One of the most surreal ongoing comics in recent memory comes to a close.
David Lapham must think that some of his fans got frustrated with the book. This last installment opens with one alter ego of the main character interviewing another. “How hard do you have to work before somebody gives you a chance?” asks the interviewee. “People say I’m a liar, that I’m a hipster, a poseur, a phoney. ‘He’s full of shit,’ they say. Just throwing crap at the wall to see what sticks. One guy even described me as ‘masturbatory.’”
“What the hell am I supposed to say?” the interviewer shoots back. “This is our eighteenth session. At first I thought it was funny. Eccentric. After the seventh session and all that shit about the Martian bugs in the trailer park? I called my editor and said there’s nothing there. The guy’s a fruitcake.”
Except that David Lapham wasn’t just throwing crap at the wall to see what sticks.
Let me back up. Before this David Lapham was best known for Stray Bullets, an innovative but comparatively conventional crime series (compared to Young Liars, that is). Young Liars suggested to readers that it would be similar, setting up a group of six young friends who fight, dance, get high, and travel to Europe together to escape the detectives sent by the father of one of their number (Sadie Dawkins) and steal a painting from the father of another. If you look back at reviews of those early issues, the assumption was that this was all heading to a major crime spree.
Then came the seventh issue, when it was revealed that Sadie Dawkins is actually a spider from Mars. Her father intended to impregnate her with millions of spider babies, soldiers for an invasion of Earth, but she escaped, came to Earth, and hid out in a trailer park. Her father caught up with her but she managed to kill all his spider minions except for five.
Then in issues 8 and 9 things seem to go back to normal. Danny Noonan, the main character and narrator, tells us that the spiders were just a dream of Sadie’s, a metaphor for her abused past. Except…not really. A few more issues and Danny’s institutionalized and the doctors are telling him there never really was a Sadie. A few issues after that and he’s locked in a town where everything is fake and designed to hold him and Sadie hostage—only Sadie doesn’t know she’s Sadie anymore. He escapes to the edge of town, hits a wall, looks through a knothole, and sees himself raping someone. And on from there to this climactic installment, which opens with the interview quoted above.
In other words, the surrealism comes less from the absurd idea of an alien invasion than from gradual dislocation of reality Lapham manages to effect. On top of Danny’s growing uncertainty about what’s real and what’s a dream or a gaslight, we as readers have to deal with the fact that every so often he stops and confesses that everything he’s just narrated is a lie. Characters reappear in different versions of reality wearing the same faces but remembering nothing of what we’ve seen them do before. Danny loses his penis and regains it, has a spider tattoo on his chest sometimes but not others, horribly burns his torso more than once and then loses and regains the scars.
This is surrealism that forces you to surrender to associative rather than linear logic. One could argue that it’s the first true surrealism in comics since Jim Woodring’s Frank (or maybe Sam Kieth’s The Maxx). It’s certainly the first comic I can remember in a long time that I felt challenged me in ways I wasn’t expecting.
You can download a PDF of issue #1 here. It’s a good sample of the art, but as I said, the story doesn’t go totally bonkers until about issue #7. Two trade paperbacks are out already: Vol. 1 collects issues 1 to 6, Vol. 2 collects 7 to 12. I expect they’ll put out Vol. 3 within a few months.