Tag: Gabriel Ba

The Best Comics of 2011

by on Dec.13, 2011, under Comics

The annual exercise. Please to begin the arguing.

#7 Amir, Zahra’s Paradise

Zahra’s Paradise 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 to create a full portrait of the horror of daily life in Tehran during the repression that followed the protests.

#6 Fred Van Lente, Comic Book Comics

For a comic book buff it’s fascinating to read tidbits like the series of events that led from the Frankfurt School, to Fredric Wertham’s testimony before Congress, to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, to the death of EC Comics, to the birth of Mad magazine. Or how the increasing crackdown on drug paraphernalia in the early 1970s put head shops out of business and thereby killed the distribution network for underground comix artists like Robert Crumb. Issue #5 even manages to make interesting reading out of nothing but the many intellectual property ripoffs and lawsuits that have plagued the medium since its birth.

#5 Ted McKeever, Meta 4

I think (and this was never my strong-suit philosopher so I’m not sure, but I think) that Ted McKeever has written a Heideggerian allegory in comic-book form. Now available in a trade collection.

#4 Phil Hester, Golly vol. 1: Catching Hell

Golly feels as if someone took Garth Ennis’s Preacher and drained out all the meanspiritedness, sadistic jokes, and sexism. Golly Munhollen 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.”

#3 Charles Soule, 27 (Twenty-Seven)

Will Garland has a repetitive stress injury in his playing hand, and in trying to cure himself accidentally makes a Faustian bargain that leaves him with a console implanted in his chest. Every time he activates it he gains a miraculous ability for three hours, but after the 27th time he does so, he will die. The ending is unexpected yet perfect. Now available in a trade paperback.

#2 Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, Daytripper

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. 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, in an extended meditation on loving in the face of death.


#1 Anders Nilsen, Big Questions

If Chris Ware is the comic book medium’s James Joyce, Anders Nilsen is its Samuel Beckett. 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. Now available in collected form.

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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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James Sturm’s America and De:Tales

by on Oct.02, 2010, under Comics

Alongside the relatively recent development of the graphic novel as a legitimate, middlebrow art form, a growing number of writer/artists have begun to develop the graphic short story as an independent genre. It’s nothing new for comics to present short, self-contained tales, but even non-superhero “indie” writers have tended to reuse protagonists from story to story. It’s a different challenge to bring characters to life only for a short span and then start with a whole new cast of them for the next story.

And that’s only the first of the challenges. In The Art of Fiction John Gardner described a basic format for short stories that involved a limited number of scenes (around three) and similarly restricted and focused use of theme, symbolism, and conflict. In longer works, even in self-contained stories in a characters ongoing series, an author has more freedom: to use wordplay just for the fun of it, or throw in a flashback that illuminates character and motivation but not plot or theme. A well-constructed short story has no time for that.

Of course, good stories can break these rules. Any rule can be broken.

Still, it’s interesting to watch graphic author/artists beginning to work within these conventions*, as do James Sturm in James Sturm’s America: God, Gold, and Golems and Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá in De:Tales.

*I’m aware that the realist short story is hardly a new form in graphic fiction. As early as the 1960s Yoshihiro Tatsumi and a whole host of other Japanese authors wrote many, many short pieces for the then-dominant manga magazines. Will Eisner wrote short semi-realist literary stories in the 1970s. I’d argue, though, that it was at best a marginal form in America from the 1980s on, and is experiencing a noticeable resurgence.

Sturm’s book (published 2007 and reviewed here because I just bought it, nyah) collects three previously published pieces of historical fiction, all unrelated, that fit comfortably into the modern genre of realist short stories. The first and third are excellent.

Story #1, “The Revival (1801)” is set at the giant camp revival meeting at Cane Ridge, Kentucky that launched the Second Great Awakening. Story #3, “The Golem’s Mighty Swing (early 1920s),” follows a barnstorming Jewish baseball team as it travels the Midwest. Both bring religious beliefs into conflict with human needs in moving, painful ways through a small cast of well-realized characters. The drawing style is similar to Chester Brown’s.

Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá (twins best known for their quasi-Borgesian series Daytrippers and various collaborations with writers including Mike Mignola, Gerard Way, and Joss Whedon) collect even shorter works in De:Tales, with even fewer characters and barely any plots. These are little vignettes of young life in São Paulo, stories of people meeting in cafes, hanging out with friends, falling in love with intriguing strangers. They’re appealing simple, sweet tales that remind me a lot of Adrian Tomine’s early minicomics and the first few issues of Optic Nerve. The brand-new hardcover edition brings back into print the collection originally issued in 2006.

PDF preview of James Sturm’s America here.

Preview of De:Tales here.

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The Umbrella Academy: Dallas

by on Oct.02, 2009, under Comics

UADAL coverGerard Way is the lead singer of My Chemical Romance. He is also the writer of The Umbrella Academy. It’s worth the effort it takes to keep the first fact from prejudicing you against the second.

The first volume of The Umbrella Academy, Apocalypse Suite, was a tight little story that introduced a cast of superheroes with an updated Fantastic Four vibe to them. Not in their powers or aesthetic, but in the comic’s focus on their family drama as the plot’s primary motive force. The gang reunites for the funeral of their adopted father and immediately has to stop their hitherto-powerless sister Vanya from destroying the world.

The book’s appeal came in equal part from Way’s absurdist streak and artist Gabriel Bá’s effortless execution of absurd ideas. In the opening pages of the book the Academy, then kids, saves Paris from Zombie Gustav Eiffel; Vanya gains her terrible powers as a living violin at the hands of “The Orchestra Verdammten.” Spaceboy, the quasi-leader, gets in such a hideous accident that his father must transplant his head onto the body of a giant semirobotic gorilla, an image Bá obviously takes great pleasure in drawing. Call it Fantastic Four with a heavy dose of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol.


Dallas, the second volume, is somewhat less assured. As Way writes in a postscript, Apocalypse Suite established the team’s identity in a story that stood alone, but Dallas is the first true installment of The Umbrella Academy as an ongoing comic, one that Way says he envisions lasting at least six or seven volumes more. And while Way has the big-picture middle and ending in mind, he’s coming up with the adventures to keep the story moving on the fly.

It’s a dynamic familiar to television fans: each episode needs to do something to advance the continuing plot while at the same time providing its own self-contained narrative arc.

In this case that arc centers around Number Five, the time-traveling brother. In Apocalypse Suite he returned home after a lifetime marooned in a postapocalyptic future, a sixty-year-old man trapped by a quirk of time reversal in the body of his ten-year-old self. In Dallas, we learn that on his way home he was snatched out of time altogether and trained by a genius-level goldfish to be the world’s most lethal time-hopping assassin. He was supposed to shoot JFK but rebelled; now the goldfish and his minions are back to compel him to finish the job.

Parts of the book simply don’t work. With Hazel and Cha-Cha, for example, a pair of Hello Kitty-faced sociopaths on Number Five’s trail, Way indulges in extreme violence as punch line, something I never like, not from him, Garth Ennis, or Quentin Tarantino. There’s an international billionaire mogul named Tor Perseus whose schemes don’t seem to connect to anything else in the plot. I assume they will in the future, but Way doesn’t give us any hints how, nor any reason why those pages couldn’t simply appear as expository background when they do finally become relevant. He has no problem with extended flashback sequences otherwise. All in all it feels scattershot, with too many elements popping in and out.

Yet there’s still enough to like that I want to stick with it to see where all this is heading. Unfortunately, we may not get the chance. Reception to the issues that make up Dallas was apparently much cooler than to the first batch, because, as my comic book guy says, “It didn’t seem to be going anywhere.” Sales have fallen off. I fear The Umbrella Academy could end up like Dark Angel: a great concept, some strong elements, some missteps, ultimately not enough ratings to tell its whole story.

Preview below the fold.

(continue reading…)

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