Each week, Paste reviews the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.
Drawn + Quarterly, 2012
Repackaged for the first time in 20 years, this time by Drawn + Quarterly, with extensive notes by the artist, Chester Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown may be the strangest thing he’s ever done, and if you know his work, you know that’s saying something. Born from an experiment with surrealism, it almost reads like a game of exquisite corpse, if you can imagine one in which every panel was created by the same person. At first its elements are disjointed, bubbling up from Brown’s subconscious to illustrate different anxieties, but as the book goes on, he forges a plot from them, making you almost forget your initial confusion. If you take a step back, it’s like watching Michael Kupperman turn into Alison Bechdel. The notes, as ever with Brown, are hilariously straightforward, stoically hand-lettered explanations of the decisions he made and what influenced them (for example, the reason an alternate dimension’s Ronald Reagan, whose head ends up on the tip of the title character’s penis, doesn’t resemble our own is simply that Brown wasn’t very familiar with him as more than a concept). Depicting a world of nightmarish chaos in which the social contract seems to have evaporated and even our own bodies betray us in the most mortifying fashion, Ed the Happy Clown is a unique window into fears both utterly individual and strangely universal. (HB)
Top Shelf, 2012
There’s no better way to peel back the curtain and observe the cogs of an artist’s struggles than through James Kochalka’s ambitious American Elf series. For more than thirteen years, the indie sensation behind Super F*ckers and Johnny Boo has created a daily comic strip based on his domestic travails as a father, husband and quirky auteur. The diary strip has been described as a hipster Family Circus, but its honesty and real time constrictions yield a richer experience. Kochalka doesn’t pull any punches as he cherry-picks the moments of his 24-hour deadlines, with topics ranging from toddler vomit to marital strife and depression elevating this past Sunday strip idealism. Watching Kolchaka offspring Eli and Oliver age in real-time (hair cuts even mirror reality) also invites an intimacy that is rarely found outside of your own family bonds. And who can’t relate to having a significant other unconsciously elbow you out of bed at 4 AM? Lots of people (me included), but Kochalka is the only man brave and blunt enough to share these nuclear misadventures. As colorful as these stories are, this fourth volume is printed in stark black and white, a disappointing move as the vibrant originals are displayed daily on Kolchaka’s site, americanelf.com and the previous three volumes were colored as well. It’s especially deflating when the strip calls attention to a new color process (i.e. beet juice) only to lead to a boring wash of grey and black. It’s a significant step down, though completionists will love the opportunity to watch the threads and themes connect through this 4-year family journal. (SE)
Drawn + Quarterly, 2012
Rakugo is a type of oral storytelling that dates back to 13th century Japan. In Fallen Words Yoshihiro Tatsumi adapts eight traditional rakugo stories into short manga vignettes, visualizing what is otherwise a verbal artform performed by individuals. These tales are set in various eras of Feudal Japan, generally deal with social customs and mores and end with a comical twist or revelation. Much of the cultural context might be lost on the modern day American, even with a few pages of notes in the back. Tatsumi isn’t dealing with simple parables but glimpses into a culture that’s long gone and very foreign to our own, stories that have been orally propagated (and no doubt altered) by dozens of generations and finally reinterpreted by an especially thoughtful and mature visual storyteller. A lot of them involve inns. Fallen Words is a slight work, but fascinating as a historical and cultural artifact. Imagine if R. Crumb created comic adaptations of the traditional folk songs that influenced the blues and country music he loves so dearly, but if everything was Japanese instead. That’s what Fallen Words feels like. (GM)
Known best for creating Raggedy Ann, Johnny Gruelle had a life in newspaper comics before the popular rag doll, and this oversized collection of some of those early works is at very least an important addition to history. Marschall fills his pages with an insightful essay that shows an awareness of Gruelle’s strengths and his flaws, most noticeably a tendency toward the saccharine and a lack of interest in round characters. Measuring 14 by 18 inches, the book mimics the original size at which the comics appeared, making it difficult to read without laying it out on a table but also calling to mind the scale at which many of its young protagonists’ adventures take place, as the elfin Mr. Twee Deedle shrinks them to the size of tiny birds and mice. The strips seem crafted mostly to impart lessons (be kind, don’t wiggle, giving is better than receiving), and there’s no question that they can feel preachy and simplistic, but the art, deliberately old-fashioned even at the time and reminiscent of Kate Greenaway’s illustrations, rescues them. Little children don’t necessarily deal in subtlety, and whether the comic’s instructive value is genuine or not, it has a gentleness that is warm and welcome. (HB)