Each week, Paste looks at some of the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books….
Top Shelf Productions
Belgian cartoonist Brecht Evens jams his latest offering with a kaleidoscope of lurid detail and beauty. The 24-year-old savant knows his strength well—there’s not a single word balloon to obscure the frenzy of creepy crawlies in every crevice of the gorgeous Night Animals. His style immediately draws comparisons to Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak and even Ralph Steadman. Upon closer look, it’s apparent that Robert Crumb is the hidden muse behind these imaginative adult fables. There’s a subversive honesty (immaturity?) to the sexuality displayed throughout these gorgeous spreads. For example, the first tale follows a grown man in a bunny costume (hint #1) as he chases an arrowed path through a labyrinth of fanged beasts and rustic water colors. He eventually reaches his destination—a rabbit-eared beauty who bares Crumb’s trademark curves. But the arrowed path doesn’t stop at its initial target; it points further down into her …er, own personal labyrinth. The second vignette’s metaphysical underpinnings are more ambiguous, featuring a girl who’s lulled away by a motley crew of wild things after she experiences her first period. This combo of Freudian intrigue and picture-book whimsy makes it difficult to discern who exactly this book is for. That said, this is by far the best collection of naked parading monsters in the history of print. (SE)
It’s no surprise to hear that Mark Kalesniko is a slow worker. His hugely ambitious and long graphic novel, Freeway, took 10 years to complete, requiring a color-coded scheme of notes to keep the four intersecting storylines straight. His alter ego Alex, whom he represents with the head of a cartoon dog, sits stuck in traffic, letting his mind wander among various layers of reminiscence. We see his childhood, his arrival in L.A. in the 1970s, his work at an animation studio that stands in for Disney and his fantasies about the 1940s as a better, purer time, moving between eras with a cinematic blurring device. The pages pack in a lot of panels with little dialogue, forcing you to slow down and pay attention, and Kalesniko’s art is subtle, detailed and clearly true to life, exactingly drawn from research into the past—more the shame that the lettering isn’t done by hand. Freeway is a little heavy on the nostalgia tip (although equally aware that mooning about the past is unproductive and potentially self-delusive), but it has few big flaws until an ending that feels tacked on and jarring. Is it a fantasy? A nod to depressing realism? Is it supposed to make you think? Whatever the case, it mars an otherwise impressive and mostly enjoyable read. (HB)
Kids these days have nothing to be scared of. Sure, there’s a daunting number of real-world issues that would frighten even the happy-go-luckiest of scamps after only a moment of contemplation. But kids are supposed to be scared of werewolves and Beelzebubs and dead people, not politics or imminent world death. The supernatural ain’t what it used to be. When the first issue of iZombie came out I dismissed it as another blip in the trend of humanizing monsters without having them talk or act anything like real people. It felt like a quippy Sundance reject where lycanthropy and zombie-ism were the quirks du jour instead of alcoholism or promiscuity. I guess my quirk is being wrong at first, because iZombie: Dead to the World reveals a clever serial with believable characters and a sly fondness for misdirection. Early in this first collection iZombie feigns at being a supernatural detective story focused on a sexy brain-eating Columbo and her ‘60s go-go ghost friend before eventually laying out its true plans in both micro and macro. iZombie focuses on the moral and romantic conflicts of a zombie trying to stay honest, but the book also builds a mythology around an ancient order of monster hunters and the spiritual differences between the various kinds of undead. A comic this smart and funny stands out among the crowded field of supernatural nonsense. Also Michael Allred is still one of the best artists around when it comes to figures, body language, and facial expressions, which are all important in a book with such minimal action. (GM)
Skullkickers is the type of purposefully lightweight adventure comic where countless corpses unite into one massive Voltron zombie who then gets kicked to death in the brain by a drunken surly dwarf. The leads are two nameless mercenaries without scruples who hunt monsters in a generic fantasy kingdom of yore. They drink, screw up a job, anger a demon, and inadvertently save and kill a lot of people while trying to protect their own selves. Skullkickers’ combo of D&D-style fantasy tropes and anachronistic slang recalls Joe Daly’s Dungeon Quest but with Daly’s more perverse and unsettling tendencies swapped out with straight-forward comic book hi-jinks. Skullkickers is a thoroughly competent jolt of brainless swashbuckling but it never quite hits what it aims for. This sort of post-ironic high-five ridiculousness has been done so often over the past decade that a book can’t just sail by on a sequence of “awesome” moments anymore. Skullkickers isn’t a specific rip-off of anything, but it still feels overly familiar. That’s the danger of dealing in a genre as calcified as fantasy. You can be self-aware down to the atomic level but that alone doesn’t convert a cliché into commentary. (GM)