Each week, Paste reviews the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.
The Nao of Brown
by Glyn Dillon
In a departure from his comics origins and what is also a return to the field after a long break, Glyn Dillon has made what feels like an autobiographical graphic novel that, in fact, isn’t. It’s neater, for one thing, which isn’t always a positive, but it’s also psychologically complex and surprising. Its main character, Nao Brown, is a half-English, half-Japanese girl with a particularly awful form of OCD that nonetheless allows her to function in the world. Her obsession with a manga turned anime leads to parallel sequences detailing its narrative and a coup de foudre interest in a washing-machine repairman who resembles one of its characters. Dillon’s watercolor art makes each page lovely, and he has a special gift for conveying much through subtle facial expressions. His characters are impressively individual, well-rounded, and not cliches. One quickly develops a vested interest in what becomes of them and the love triangle that results. Two small complaints: with this much work on the visuals, it would have been nice to see hand lettering, and the ending is a bit deliberately obscure. It’s also emphatically one of the strongest books SelfMadeHero has put out and definitely worth your time. (HB)
By various creators
Anthologies are rarely this consistent. It’s not that surprising with creators like Gilbert Hernandez, Paul Pope, Joe Kubert and Jeff Lemire on hand, though. Also it helps to have a topic (uh, ghosts) that’s both relatively specific but also vague enough for a wide range of stories. Hernandez’s story is a trifle with an obvious twist, but it’s still startling how he can wring genuine emotion out of a one-off short. Pope’s piece is as much sci-fi as ghost story, which fits his intricate, psychedelic art style. Lemire draws a Geoff Johns story that avoids the expected graphic vivisection in favor of a comically spooky tone that fits the holiday well. The most interesting piece here from a historical perspective is Joe Kubert’s last work, “The Boy and the Old Man”. Kubert had finished penciling and writing this Mesoamerican rite of passage horror short before passing away in August. It appears here how he left it, just pencils with no inks or colors, rougher even than the sketches in Dong Xoai. You can see each stroke. It’s a fitting, workmanlike send-off to one of the medium’s greatest craftsmen. The best short here, though, is a demonic lark about evil, soul-stealing chili by Neil Kleid and John McCrea. It’s an absurd premise treated with utmost sincerity by its creators, and of all the stories here feels the most like something you’d find in an old EC comic or issue of Eerie. The price point is high (eight bucks!), but this anthology never drags. (GM)
The Understanding Monster: Book One
by Theo Ellsworth
Secret Acres, 2012
Much as the press releases on this work of dream logic try to explain it, I can’t help but think the title of this book is an assay against the whole concept of “understanding.” Treat it as a narrative, even a thoroughly coded one like Finnegan’s Wake, and you’re sure to be frustrated and disappointed. Look at it as a loosely connected series of art images, and you may be more satisfied. Ellsworth’s pages each stand as beautiful creations in their own right. Rendered in horror vacui style akin to that of the outsider artist Adolf Wölfli, with patterns covering every inch, but also owing a little to the layout of Mad magazine, with its own crowded aesthetic around the edges of the page, his images are relentlessly interesting and gorgeously colored. Trying to understand just what the understanding monster is will leave you with a real appreciation for Matthew Thurber’s storytelling gifts (e.g., 1-800-Mice), but leave the left brain at home and you’ll go home happy.
Superman: Earth One Vol. 2
by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis
As far as the whole mainstream, streamlined, training-wheel bubble of comic book publishing is concerned, you can do a lot worse than J. Michael Straczynski’s Earth One series. The idea of giving an archaic strongman in a wrestling leotard a teen makeover is hardly new, lest we forget ten seasons of a Tommy Hilfiger model battling under-budget green screen effects on The CW. But Stracynski isn’t one to sink down to hormonal stereotypes, nor is he one to bore himself. The best parts of this sequel to the 2010 surprise hit can already be found in JMS’ underrated Squadron Supreme relaunch, that cast its super analogy Hyperion as an alien freak reviled by those around him and borderline apathetic to his lame adopted planet. This volume sterilizes the cynicism and grit of that material, but Clark’s isolation is nicely explored and felt in flashbacks (dude buries a cat on the moon—and it’s beautiful) and new romance. Unfortunately, the action is pretty cold fish, using a sociopathic update of the Parasite to instigate some compulsory face bashing. The action is by far the least creative part of this book, and I found myself waiting for Clarke to get back to his slinky new gf Lisa. (Spoiler alert: she dresses like a hooker, acts like a hooker, and then turns out to literally be a hooker. Way to call out our unrealistic fantasies, JMS. But in Lisa’s defense, she’s way cooler than that square Lois). If there’s a defense against how bland and outdated Superman has become, it can be found in pockets of this book, where teenage alienation is taken to a whole new level. (SE)