Saturday, April 03, 2004

it's not lowbrow, it's avant garde

Now a word about comic books.

In the past few years I've developed a passion for graphic novels and full-length comic books, but I guess if you look back, I've always been into comics. My childhood is littered with comic books, from "Peanuts" collections to Chinese comics (which my dad would read to me), and later, to EC comics from the 1950s like "The Vault of Horror," "Crime Suspenstories" and "Weird Science." Hope this doesn't make me too much of a Simpson's Comic Book Store Guy, but over the years, I even accrued hardbound sets of three EC series ("Crime," "Science" as mentioned above, and "Weird Fantasy," my least favorite of the three, probably because I got kinda sick of all the stories about space travel).

And of course, like any good childhood comic reader, I was a childhood comic drawer. My dad and I would take turns volleying back and forth comic strips, his more of the one frame New Yorker gag comic variety, I of the four-panel setup folding the paper into quarters for easy frames). When I was nine or so, I started what ended up being a four-volume series about a bumbling superhero called "Superguy," detailing his various well-intentioned misadventures in the city. One that I particularly remember was about Superguy filling in for his friend, "Superintendant," (I thought this was deliciously clever) who was going on vacation, leaving Superguy to fix the toilets and field complaints in his 21-story apartment building, curiously not unlike the one I lived in. Production costs and efforts were low in those days. A little pencil and magic marker, slap on a cover and force a few staples through (reinforcing with Scotch tape when the staples wouldn't hold), and bam! First edition!

So what I'm saying is, I've always like comic books.

Not so much of the Marvel/DC superhero comics that people think of when they think of comic book stores, and the snuffling, slavish teen boys that flock to those racks, peering through smudged lenses to survey this month's new crop of collectibles. I'm more into realism, novels in comic form, autobiographical stories. There are a few quasi-fantastic stories that I've appreciated, but on the whole, my favorite comics are grounded on Earth.

Do you like comics? Do you want to start reading graphic novels but don't really know where to start? Here, for you, is my incomplete recommended reading list:

"Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid of Earth", by Chris Ware. This, in many ways, is the pinnacle of the form. Astounding art, tightly complex story line, a full meal of a book. I've talked more about Jimmy Corrigan in the past (I would link the old page, but I can't find it), but I'll just say that it's a classic, and the kind of book where you see or appreciate at least one new thing on each re-reading. And now it's out in paperback for only $20, which is a real deal because this is a book you need not only to read, but to own.

"Maus", by Art Spiegelman. Enough has been said about Maus, between the Pulitzer and all the fuss that surrounded it when it first came out. So I'll just say it's well worth the hype.

Adrian Tomine. That's the name of the writer, not the book. If you read the New Yorker, you may also know him as one of the staff artists (as is Art Spiegelman), and I think the thing that really sets him apart from other artists is that he can capture any facial expression in the range of human emotion, no matter how subtle. "Summer Blonde" and "Sleepwalk" are his best, I think, but he also has a collection called "32 Stories" from his self-publishing mini-comic days that is interesting to read, especially to see his artistic development.

"Blankets", by Craig Thompson. Beautiful to look at, and beautiful to read. These coming-of-age stories always get to me.

Daniel Clowes. One of the godfathers of indie comics. Or at least one of the wacky uncles, if R. Crumb is the godfather. Of course everyone has heard about "Ghost World", since it was made into that movie (starring Thora Birch and a pre-"Lost in Translation" Scarlett Johansson), but his "Twentieth Century Eight Ball" collection along with "Caricature" also had a lot to offer. Clowes strength, I think, is in showing the ugliness in everyday people, along with having a great ear for dialogue, especially for that of disaffected teenagers. I have to be unpopular here, though, and say that I really didn't cotton to "David Boring" and Like a "Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron". I guess for the same reason I don't like French Dadaist film. I'm all, "wha?" A little too avant garde for me, I suppose.

"Box Office Poison". I love these graphic novels that are, like, 600 pages long. Makes me feel like I'm getting my money's worth. Unlike Blankets, though (which is also long, at 500+ pages) it's a slower read, because it's more dialogue and text driven. The art isn't the thing here as much as the characters, but still it's important that it's a graphic novel and not just a regular book with pictures in it. Set in the mid-90s showing the intersecting lives of a group of friends living in Brooklyn, it's a lot of fun to read. As one review put it, reading this book is like spying on your friends when they didn't know you were there. So much so that when I was at Barnes and noble and saw "BOP!", the newly published bits and scraps of Box Office Poison that didn't make the book proper, I snatched it right up and bought it on the spot, because I wanted to see what was happenning with the characters.

Lynda Barry. Well, obviously. Where Daniel Clowes is a master of disaffected teenage dialogue, Lynda Barry is a master of the language of children. Read "One Hundred Demons" or "The Greatest Of Marlys" and see for yourself. I would also like to put in a plug for two of her illustrated prose books. First, "The Good Times are Killing Me", which is as good a story about everyday race relations as I've ever read, and secondly, "Cruddy", which is dark and terrible and beautiful all at once.

Joe Matt is kind of a different story. Whereas I admire the comic writers I mentioned above, the thing with Joe Matt is you kind of hate him. Author of the autobiographical comic series "Peepshow," he gives you a full frontal assault on his life as a whiny, miserly, misogynistic, misanthropic racist loser. When I read Joe Matt's books (and I think there are only three: "Peepshow", "The Poor Bastard", and "Fair Weather"), you kind of want to kill him. But also, you can't stop reading. Which I guess is good.

Derek Kirk Kim is someone who really inspired me to put up my comics online. His website Lowbright (it used to be called "Small Stories Online") has an archive of all his work, and I found it after following a link to his serialized short story "Same Difference." (Please do yourself a favor and click on that last link to read the story in its entirety.) Like "Box Office Poison," you get that feeling of evesdropping on your friends, but in a smaller group. Small Stories was actually an excellent name for Kim's work, in that it deals with small, ordinary lives and small, ordinary disappointments therein. I'm going to buy his book, "Same Difference and Other Stories" once it's reissued from Top Shelf Comics in May.

OK, that's it. Better stop now before you all start mocking me for being Comic Book Store Guy. "Er, excuse me. No banging your head on the display case please, it contains a very rare Mary Worth in which she has advised a friend to commit suicide. Thank you." By the way, I've noticed that the women that work in the comic book store closest to me (not the owners, but the cashiers) are all exceptionally attractive. Not in that Monster Truck Pull hot chick kind of way, with big blonde hair and fake boobs, rather in that petite gamine little pixie way. They're like anime characters. This is surely a customer relations ploy. Seems to be working. I'm the only female customer I've ever seen in the place.

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