Each week, Paste reviews the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.
Dark Horse, 2011
Rating: “Indian Summer”: 3.0; “Paper Man”: 8.2
Here’s a quandary. You open a gorgeous slate-grey compendium brimming with intricate, fluid line work. The pencils and inks replicate human anatomy with a master’s touch, every feature, contour and shade falling in visual harmony to encompass physique as loyal as a photograph, with workmanship as disciplined as a Renaissance prodigy. The plot beats are interspersed with lavish, lonely landscapes that might have wandered in from a Terence Malick set. And then you watch a teenage rape victim have sex with her uncle for twelve panels while she describes how exciting her recent violation was. This is the critical paradox of Italian artist Milla Manara, a legendary illustrator recognized for conjuring some of the most beautiful 2-dimensional women in the print medium. Dark Horse’s first entry in honor of the controversial artist features two stories, “Indian Summer” and “Paper Man.” The latter, written by Hugo Pratt and published in 1983, pays homage to the great colonial yarns of Nathanial Hawthorne and James Fennimore Cooper. Pratt and Manara weave an intricate web of religious repression, violence, atonement, sex, rape and incest. None of these is particularly offensive in its proposed context: a hypocritical puritan priest who rapes children definitely makes a hideous villain. The morally-grey (veering into black) pitfall is that these atrocities are visualized with pornographic obsession, rendered in Manara’s hyper-erotic elegance. The point between shock value and glamorization is blurred to incomprehensibility, awkwardly breaking the story with uncomfortable, feverish sexuality. Sometimes for twelve panels. The second story “Paper Man” offers a benign, engaging romp about a cowboy and Indian falling in love in the midst of Western Expansion. Written by Manara, this old-school slice of pulp heaven delivers an accessible entryway into the artist’s legacy without the cultural barbs that can distract from his inspired output. (SE)
No one can say Jason Becker and Jon Rea don’t have ideas. Killing Pickman is rotten with them. But there’s a line between jam-packed and hoarding, and this book, which compiles previously individually published issues of a limited series, may have jumped right over it. The story is a bit on the hoary side, adding demonic worship and powers to its eponymous character, a child molesting, torturing murderer, and Rea paints the whole thing in murky tones that owe plenty to David Fincher. There’s also an attempt at a Beowulf analogy (quotes from the poem begin each chapter/issue, one character’s last name is Grendel, protagonist William Zhu’s Chinese name translates as “blood wolf”), but it fails. Nothing matches up neatly. Instead, Becker throws a million references at the wall just to see what sticks (Sam Raimi, H. P. Lovecraft), but all he ends up with is a messy wall. Rea’s art makes use of a similar collage sensibility, mimicking medical folders, prayer books and more as substrate and ringing round his images with text. Still, despite its problems, the book ends up a decent read, provided you can get past its tired investigation of the dark side. Too many ideas is better than not enough. (HB)
Drawn and Quarterly, 2011
Lynda Barry can be an acquired taste. When I was younger I thought her artwork was messy and ugly and that her surreal sense of humor was an unwitting parody of intentionally obtuse “alternative” comics. I also loved “Ghost Rider”, so I wasn’t the best judge of anything. Now I recognize Barry’s idiosyncratic voice as one of the most singular and well-defined in comics. Blabber Blabber Blabber collects some of Barry’s earliest comics, including the entire run of Ernie Pook’s Comeek and her book Girls and Boys. There’s a childlike sense of play but also a recurring sadness to the absurd Comeek strips, and the latter especially comes to the forefront in the vignettes that make up Girls and Boys. Barry brought a feminine perspective to the style and tone of punk-era underground comics, reinforcing the often aimless edge and shallow cynicism of the era with meaningful observations about what it means to be human. Barry’s introduction is as fascinating as the book itself, as she uses text and drawings to describe her inspirations from childhood through the dawning of the 1980s. Blabber Blabber Blabber is a vital look at the formative years of a comics legend. (GM)
Will Eisner is one of those artists in the comics pantheon who seems like vegetables but is actually candy. Someone so lauded and so old must not have been all that great, right? Well, nuts to you, ding-dong, and Abrams’ new compilation of pages from Eisner’s work for the military proves his worth yet again. Compared to Abrams’ other publication, Government Issue, this book is far more solid through and through, which isn’t to say it doesn’t have its dull spots (there’s only so much interest you can wring out of determining why your carburetor isn’t functioning properly) but that even those are made more than bearable by Eisner’s joyful, funny, intelligent art. If you want to see more of Joe Dope, sizzling Connie Rodd and other characters, the rest of the material is available online, as the text notes, but the compact format, with nicely rounded corners, is a bonus and the printing quality is excellent. Not only is the book interesting historically, much of it manages to be a pleasure to read in its own right. (HB)