Each week, Paste reviews the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.
Top Shelf Productions
Blue is unmistakably Australian, all surfing and weird slang, but the town at the heart of Pat Grant’s debut should be familiar to anybody. It’s any town after the mill or factory shuts down, after the Wal-Mart just off the highway drives downtown out of business, after the people slowly trickle away to other towns that might offer more work. Bolton isn’t real, but it’s real enough to make us all uncomfortable. Also not real: the tentacled blue blobs that move into Bolton as property values drop, importing their own foreign culture and driving away what remains of the prejudiced original residents. Grant’s rounded squiggles depict unassimilated immigrants as the hopelessly foreign creatures they must have appeared as to the provincial, working class Australians of Bolton. Blue is only 96 pages long but somehow ties the decay of a town, white flight and the resentment of immigrants in with a story of youthful aimlessness that openly references Stand By Me. Grant’s naturalistic and often funny depiction of wayward teens rides along a sad undercurrent made explicit by the depressing modern-day framing sequence, where a grown-up character turns a wary and racist eye to the blue people who have taken over his town. Instead of understanding the problems that lead to Bolton’s demise and to the uptick in immigration he simplistically blames everything on those who don’t look like him. Blue’s minimalist blue, white and grey design scheme matches its thoughtful and understated story. (GM)
Adhouse Books, 2012
American Barbarian is a hard book to get your head around. One way to describe it might be Paper Rad does He-Man, but that wouldn’t get across the joy of the thing. Adhouse Books has always been a standout for its production values, and this book is a showpiece, printed in stellar color on uncoated paper. Panels originally created for the web suffer little and, in fact, their pushing of the limits of traditional structure is a pleasure. Most of what happens consists of punching, stabbing, crushing, jumping and the like, but it’s all so beautifully rendered that even those of artier temperament will stick with it. It isn’t clear at all whether Scioli’s style is a joke, with its intrusions of modern slang, its puns, and its wink-wink double entendres creating static when juxtaposed with its occasionally Fletcher Hanks-esque visual choices, but that ambiguity doesn’t detract from the book, which ends up (surprisingly) having a good story at its core. It is also full of nonsense, but a healthy silliness can create great art just as well as a deadly serious outlook. (HB)
There’s an inner 14-year-old in me that will always appreciate the hyperviolent, sadomasochistic trash that is The Darkness. Or at least that was The Darkness back in the mid nineties. Sixteen years ago, founding writer Garth Ennis didn’t have many goals besides giving Marc Silvestri an excuse to update the Franzetta legacy of silicone angels (literally) fighting guys with mullets and swords. In the book’s defense, most of the art was stunning and the action was enjoyable if excessive. Then mercurial writer Phil Hester pumped the brakes on a story about a mobster-demon with hentai tentacles on his back to instill some scholarly intrigue and characterization. Antihero Jackie Estacado, a Mafia capo possessed by generation-hopping evil, not only made a career of vivisecting bad guys, but also struggled with the black hole of nothingness growing in his soul. Nietzsche would be proud. This balancing act between a goofy demonic weapon and its Paxil-defying metaphor comes to an end with Hester’s last issue. The plot builds to a natural conclusion that fits the trajectory Estacado’s taken for the past few years, but fails to challenge the reader in any substantial way. I’m not sure what the Darkness exactly is at this juncture, but it would have been great if it had been more than a purple monster that can be stabbed with a big knife. The three pencilers feel equally anonymous and rushed; why this capstone didn’t feature all-star alums Silvestri, Dale Keown, Joe Benitez and Michael Broussard rotating on interiors is baffling and disappointing. That said, Hester’s collected run is both fascinating and visceral while a certain videogame sequel will transport any legacy readers back to the title’s less enlightened, more sociopathic days. (SE)
Oni Press, 2012
If you are a certain kind of person, the knowledge that this story addresses spontaneous human combustion is enough for you to be interested, invested even. That is, if you already know without the book’s epilogue mentioning it, that Charles Dickens’s Bleak House features a case of SHC, as does Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland, even my complaints will not keep you away. Sadly, though, Spontaneous is a disappointment, a high-concept mystery that fails to deliver on its juicy premise. Instead, it gets bogged down in conspiracy theories and major revelations that are either telegraphed or poorly explained, the panels signaling shock and amazement and the reader merely thinking “huh?” Maybe no real-world explanation for SHC can measure up to the scariness of randomly bursting into flame, but this one could have used some more work. The character of Emily Durshmiller is the strongest one here, a snappy self-conscious anachronism, but she’s not present as much as our mopey protagonist Melvin, who’s full of angst and transparently soaked in mysteriousness by Harris. Weldele’s messy, collage-like pages don’t make things any clearer. Calling Rick Geary! (HB)