Each week, Paste reviews the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.
The popularity of A Charlie Brown Christmas has always been a tad mystifying. The show arrived in a package lined with bobble-headed children and anthropomorphic dogs, only to unload 25 minutes of schoolyard bullying and anti-commercial rhetoric from the mouth of babes. This observation isn’t designed to undermine an established masterpiece, just recognize an unconventional one with a stronger religious spine than one would find in most mainstream media. Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking arrives 45 years later, and one might assume, doesn’t hold the same capitalistic reservations as the iconic special it’s associated with. Part of the book was salvaged from work created two years before the TV special aired, reprinting a series of vignettes from a 1963 issue of Good Housekeeping. The remainder arrives from a comic published in Woman’s Day circa 1968. How a total of 27 illustrations constitutes a mini-hardback book with a $10 price tag is a very good question, but not one without answers. Each page inflates Charles Schulz’ illustrations in a vibrant 2-color range of red and green, complemented by a cross-page of text (per the vignettes). The puns may be dated, but Stocking recaptures the timeless anatomy and finesse that its author bestowed on his pint-size creations. Seeing this work isolated and expanded only reinforces the sheer timelessness and brilliance inherent; Schulz was a master of mood and line in equal measure. Charlie Brown’s Stocking may seem supplementary at best and exploitive at worst, but it’s some of the finest nostalgia porn you can put under the tree (or yes, your stocking) this holiday. (SE)
Secret Acres, 2012
Well. Secret Acres isn’t going to dispel its reputation for weird, arty comics with this one. If you’re into superheroes, you might as well stop reading, but then you’d miss Eamon Espey’s unique vision. Although his work bears comparisons to both Theo Ellsworth (whose The Understanding Monster we reviewed here) and Jim Woodring in its loopy journeys into the unconscious mind, it has its own charms, neither as driven by connected events as Woodring’s stories nor as disjointed as Ellsworth’s. Rendered in black-and-white in a highly patterned style, his characters trace archetypal narratives, discernible to some extent even without the notes in the back that provide captions of sorts for each page. A creation story, a tale of brother killing brother, echoes of American Indian and Egyptian myth are all present, along with heaps of genitalia, vomit, and violence. Do your kids still believe in Santa? Then you’d better keep Song of the Abyss on the top shelf, as Espey depicts him as an agent of his anagrammatic master, Satan. It’s possible the book is too blissed out and psychedelic. There are long passages where you may lose track of what’s happening, and yet it’s all reminiscent of trying to reconstruct the thread of a rapidly dissipating dream, which makes it, in spite of its dogged difficulty, an experience worth having. (HB)
The best creative decision Rob Liefeld has ever made is to let more talented creators take over his comics. Much like Alan Moore on Supreme in the late 1990s, Brandon Graham and a crew of great artists have rebooted the hackneyed superhero also-ran Prophet into a surprisingly taut and restrained sci-fi thriller that feels like Conan written by Ray Bradbury. With terse narration and almost no dialogue, Prophet focuses tightly on the individual adventures of a series of clones of the Liefeld superhero John Prophet (part Captain America, part Wolverine, all shoulder pads) in a far off post-human future. Imagine the many Sam Rockwells of Moon if they were bioengineered super-soldiers dealing with utterly foreign and impenetrable alien cultures. The silent Prophet, in all his permutations, is as mysterious and unknowable as any of the aliens he encounters, with vaguely defined missions, a variety of unusual weapons and tools, and the occasional prehensile tale. It’s a gritty, no-nonsense exercise in world building, not too dissimilar from Graham’s Multiple Warheads, but without the humor and untethered from a single point in time or cast of characters. Graham only draws one of the issues in this collection, but Simon Roy and Farel Dalrymple cohabitate well with art that’s both realistic and appropriately fantastic. Prophet dispenses with the lie that there’s any fundamental difference between fantasy and science fiction. (GM)
First Second, 2012
Mimicking in some ways the structure of The Karate Kid, an allusion this book isn’t ignorant of, Sumo is a focused look at a turning point in the career of a new sumo wrestler. Thien Pham is probably best known at this point for contributing the art to Gene Luen Yang’s Level Up, but he both wrote and drew this story, and the writing is as good as the visuals. Our protagonist, Scott, played football in college but never quite made it to the next level. Recruited to the world of sumo, he struggles both to adapt to an alien world (not only Japan but specifically sumo itself, with its many arcane rituals) and to move forward. Pham deals with flashbacks by using switching from red tones to blue, but he also changes the graphic behind his page numbers, a nice device. It’s not a big book or a hugely important story, but it’s very Japanese in its elimination of the extraneous. Pham conveys a lot visually, and although his images are simple, they contain much information. The pacing is smart and Pham’s decision (spoiler alert?) to leave the conclusion open-ended, while a little cliché by this point, is appropriate. (HB)