Each week, Paste reviews the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.
Some of the strongest parts of David B.’s acclaimed autobiographical graphic novel Epileptic were the author’s flights into fantasy, when he drew hordes of battling Mongol soldiers or samurai hacking each other to bits. The Armed Garden has much more in common with those childhood obsessions than with the prosaically horrific family dynamics and illness that make up the larger part of the earlier book, and it’s better for it. This slim volume is finely edited, and its narrative tone resides on the border between fairy stories and unbowdlerized folk tales. In other words, it is suffused with equal dismay and delight at the nature of the world. The drawings, printed in two crisp colors, would be worth the price of the book if it were stripped of words. Like Craig Thompson’s Habibi (which it precedes in its original publication date, pre-translation) and Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, it has a great deal of wonder in it, which it conveys in a surprisingly matter-of-fact way. Do note that the book is full of penises and violence (and I mean full), so you may not want to buy it for your ten-year-old niece, but if you are still under the spell of story, The Armed Garden will delight you. (HB)
Drawn and Quarterly, 2011
Yep, this is the same Death-Ray that ran in Eightball #23 back in 2004, only now in a nice oversized hardcover edition. It’s still a gloomy Bildungsroman about teenage disillusionment and vigilante justice, focusing on an arrogant and mostly friendless teenager who gets superpowers from a forbidden vice in the late 1970s. Egged on by his angry punk friend, he uses those powers to beat up bullies and other wrong-doers. Eventually he discovers the weapon of the title, which immediately blinks its target out of existence, and the stakes are raised from mere beatings to weighing judgment on the merits of existence itself. Clowes’ literary superhero tale scatters its story into a number of vignettes, aping the styles of various comic genres while tracking one outcast’s increasing separation from society. Clowes examines the combination of condescension, guilt, and self-righteousness common to both adolescence and superhero vigilantism, while also working in a bit of middle-aged disappointment via the present-day framing device. It’s a brief read given the price, but likely one you won’t soon forget. (GM)
If anyone was going to create a clever Venn diagram of Dickens’A Christmas Carol and Batman, Lee Bermejo would be the last guy to come to mind. The singular artist rose eyebrows with scribe Brian Azzarello on graphic novels like Joker and Lex Luthor: Man of Steel that took traditional villains into mature directions. His stint on Joker featured cringe-worthy portraits of the Clown Prince of Crime skinning a man alive and raping his lackey’s wife, giving the seminal villain a new depravity that jolted long-time fans. Bermejo even thought the punch line was too brutal, inspiring him to work on a story book that turned into Batman: Noel. The first-time writer transforms the Dark Knight into a nifty Scrooge analogy with Catwoman, Superman and the Joker standing in for the visiting Christmas ghosts. Even with low expectations for a virgin writer attempting a daunting literary translation, the plot flows as smoothly as a one-bat open sleigh. The caped crusader channels the gravelly paranoia of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns while a desperate father working for the Joker lends the story its moral weight and inevitable humanitarian payoff. Bermejo’s painted art is detailed and gorgeous, but the pages retain an awkward airbrushed glow that make the characters look like they’re perpetually lit by a bonfire. Even these quirks and a few half-baked plot beats shouldn’t stop you from making this your first stocking stuffer of the holiday season. (SE)
NBM Publishing, 2011
Japanese culture seems perpetually concerned with animism, or the idea that non-human entities and things have their own spirits, and Stargazing Dog is a good example. Happie, its title character and the main one, isn’t anthropomorphized exactly; we are privvy to his thoughts and emotions, but he doesn’t have any greater knowledge than an animal would be expected to, which is what makes the story sad: the constant gap between his expectations and what we know to be the reality. The story focuses on the life, from beginning to end, of a dog, who is adopted by a family that subsequently breaks up. He endures tragedy with little cognizance of it and is happy with a handful of beef jerky. When his human dies (the book opens at the end, then flashes back), he remains faithful and uncomprehending before he finally closes his eyes, too. Is this kitsch? At least a little bit. I have a feeling it bears some resemblance to the works of Nicholas Sparks. There’s a wide streak of sentimentality, complete with a field of sunflowers, but the book contains some moving moments, too, even if they aren’t necessarily genuinely achieved. (HB)